Comet from space ‘decimated town and caused deadliest wildfire in history’

On this day 151 years ago (October 8, 1871) the deadliest wildfire of all time claimed the lives of somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 people.

The Peshtigo fire completely decimated a town of the same in Wisconsin, US. Peshtigo had a population of around 1,700 prior.

In 1883 US Congressman Ignatius L Donnelly first proposed the theory that the blaze, as well as the Great Chicago Fire which claimed around 300 lives on the same day, was caused by fragments of a comet smashing into Earth.

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Specifically, Biela's Comet was said to be responsible for the deaths.

In 1852 the comet fragmented in half and was never observed again. However, the Earth crossed the path of its orbit at the start of the 1870s and mid 1880s, with the disintegrated pieces of the comet creating bright meteor showers.

The idea that these meteors were responsible for the Peshtigo fire was revived in Mel Waskin's 1985 book Mrs O'Leary's Comet, and analysed in a 2004 paper published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Study author Robert M Wood wrote: "Witness reports from Chicago included statements that entire basements exploded with a blue flame and that red-hot sand came raining down.

"In upstate Wisconsin near Green Bay, there were reports of 'fire balloons' about one meter in size falling from the sky that exploded with great heat when ignited, incinerating objects struck.

"If fire balloons consisted of methane, one ton of methane would be the energy equivalent of 12 tons of TNT if stoichiometrically burned.

"There were also reports that the fire came directly from the sky, with a trembling of the earth – perhaps a symptom of a shockwave."

However, experts have since discredited the theory.

"Stony meteorites are poor conductors of heat and there is insufficient time to carry heat to the interior," a Meteorite Magazine article reads.

"A freshly fallen meteorite is often cool if not cold to the touch. There are reports of ice condensing upon the surface of meteorites as they lay on the ground in warm conditions."

Others have said that any fragments of Biela's Comet would have burnt up on entry into our atmosphere. The "blue flames" reported have been attributed to burning carbon monoxide in the poorly ventilated basements.

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The leading theory is that small slash-and-burn farming fires were spread by a freak weather front and strong winds, creating a "firestorm".

Academics describe a firestorm as: "Superheated flames of at least 2,000F (1,093C)… advance on winds of 110 miles per hour or stronger.

"When a firestorm erupts in a forest, it is a blowup, nature's nuclear explosion."

In addition to the deaths, some 1.5million hectares of land were destroyed and 17 rural settlements wiped off the face of the Earth.

In today's money there was $113million (£100m) worth of damage.


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