Ghosts of the Fireground: Echoes of the Great Peshtigo Fire and the Calling of a Wildland Firefighter

Ghosts of the Fireground: Echoes of the Great Peshtigo Fire and the Calling of a Wildland Firefighter

by Peter M Leschak


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In October 1871, a massive forest fire incinerated the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It was the deadliest fire in North American history, an event so intense that its release of energy was not approximated until the advent of thermo-nuclear weapons. At least 1,200 people perished—some in bizarre and disturbing ways—and the actual number of fatalities is unknown, perhaps as many as 1,500 were lost. Since the Great Chicago Fire occurred at the same time, Peshtigo was overshadowed and almost forgotten.

In 2000, veteran wild-land firefighter Peter Leschak was faced with a hot and challenging fire season, tasked with the leadership of a helitack crew—an airborne fire team expected to be the “tip of the spear” on wildfire initial attacks. During that long summer he studied Father Peter Pernon’s eyewitness account of the Pehstigo holocaust, and using his knowledge and experience as a firefighter, Leschak placed himself in Pernin’s shoes, as much as possible being transported to the firestorm of 1871. Ghosts of the Fireground tells both tales: the horrific saga of Peshtigo, and the modern battles of a wildfire helicopter crew, seamlessly intertwining the stories to enhance them both.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504055949
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 11/27/2018
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 353,165
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Peter M. Leschak has been a firefighter for thirty-seven years, in both municipal and wild-land arenas, and has worked a thousand incidents in the United States and Canada. He is the author of ten books, including Letters from Side Lake and Hellroaring, and won a Minnesota Book Award for The Bear Guardian. Leschak has written for dozens of magazines, including Harper’s, Outdoor Life, National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times Book Review, and Reader’s Digest. He lives in northeastern Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt



The snow was only seven inches deep. On February 9. In northern Minnesota. Our septic system had frozen twelve days earlier, ensuring a long winter even without blizzards. There wasn't enough snow to insulate the drainfield. We were locked in drought, and I checked my phenology records to glean some perspective: in early February the year before, we enjoyed a fourteen-inch blanket; in 1997 it was twenty-eight inches. But in the first months of the new century our forest was parchment dry. No significant precipitation had fallen since mid-October. A local newspaper reported that Death Valley, California, was having a wetter season.

This was exciting data, the major topic of conversation during occasional phone calls to my wildland firefighting colleagues. Like me, most were laid off for the winter and keenly interested in prospects for the coming spring and summer. We never tired of chattering about the awe- inspiring potential of fire in the Blowdown.

Not since the turn of the previous century, when entire sections in the vast pineries of the Upper Midwest were buried in logging slash, had there been such a massive concentration of wildland fuel. In 1871, a citizen of Port Huron, Michigan, reportedly walked for a mile on fallen tree trunks. But now, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northeastern Minnesota, there existed a swath of downed timber five to twelve miles wide and thirty miles long. The havoc wreaked by 90-mile-per-hour winds was apocalyptic in scale, like a twisted vision from the book of Revelation. Forest Service calculations pegged a normal fuel load for such boreal forest at about 15 to 20 tons per acre. After the violent July 4 storm, the load was estimated at 50 to 100 tons per acre. If arid conditions lingered into spring and summer ... well, we might witness the fire of the new century, and it would be uncommonly dangerous. There was no fire behavior model to adequately predict the nature of a fire in such a glut of fuel.

On this relatively balmy February 9, I received a phone call from the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center (MIFC), a coordination hub for emergency operations. Out of the blue, I was thrust into the center of the messy, seductive scenario. Because of the fresh surplus of hazard, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry (DNR) decided to fund a Type-II initial attack helicopter to be based at Grand Marais, on the eastern periphery of the Blowdown. If I so desired, I could be the manager of that Bell 212 and its crew.

When I heard the offer, the nape of my neck pulsed and tingled, as if I'd backed into a live wire. I was both thrilled and flattered, but also pinched by dread. Even while hearing myself posing prudent questions and ostensibly weighing a decision, an inner voice (perhaps resident in the reptilian portion of the brain) was bellowing, "Yes! Yes! Hell, yes!"

In my charge would be eight to ten people and a four-million-dollar aircraft. We'd be an elite, high-profile resource, expected to be on ten- minute readiness, seven days a week, and to be one of the first, if not the first, to arrive at any fire or other emergency, including blazes in the Blowdown. The assignment would last a minimum of three months and probably be extended. My outer voice said, "Okay. I'll commit for ninety days."

It would begin on June 1, and thus my summer income — always an iffy proposition — was assured. I rushed downstairs to tell Pam, and in that telling, with the spoken words actually breathing life into what until then had been an abstraction, my neck tingled again. What had I gotten myself into? Could it be I was in over my head? For the next several months, the Assignment, as I called it, was ever haunting my thoughts. Was it more than I could do?

That night I had a flying dream. I'm not a pilot, but I've spent enough intense time in the left front seat of a helicopter to decorate such dreams with special lucidity. I was at the controls of a small Type-III helicopter, perhaps a Bell 206 Jet Ranger. My left hand grasped the collective stick and I slowly raised it, increasing the pitch of the main rotor blades to lift the ship off the ground. My right hand — sweating — clutched the cyclic stick between my knees. I pushed it forward, tilting the entire rotor disk toward the nose of the helicopter, and it jumped ahead for a tree line of tall aspens. My feet were lightly pressing on the two antitorque pedals that control the pitch of the tail rotor, and I struggled to keep the tail boom from swerving back and forth. I surged over the trees, joyful and soaring, but saw a mountain range ahead. The controls suddenly seemed leaden and unresponsive, and I couldn't compensate. It was painfully obvious I wasn't going to clear the ridges.

I believe, as did psychoanalyst Carl Jung, that there is no sharp divide between dreams and waking reality. Dreams are a natural process and don't fool us. In his autobiography Jung wrote, "To me dreams are a part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive, but expresses something as best it can. ..." Why should the machinations of our wakeful mind be considered more potent, more "real," than those of our "sleeping" mind? No compelling reason occurs to me.

So I understood the dream to be a manifestation of fear. The inner voice had shouted "Yes!" but it was tinged with whistling bravado. I was afraid. Not of death or injury, but of failure.

It brought to mind an episode from a fire in northwest Ontario in June 1996. Our squad of Minnesotans was working a remote flank of a large fire, laying down hundreds of feet of hose and advancing a nozzle along the perimeter. At the end of the shift we were to be extracted via helicopter, and we waited for the ship in an opening in a small spruce bog. Squadrons of mosquitoes enthusiastically fed on our faces, so we were glad to hear the distinctive thump-thump of a Bell 204 "Huey."

We recognized the pilot from the day before. He was a brash New Zealander we'd already dubbed "Cowboy" because of his flamboyant, sometimes frightening, style of flying. We quickly piled into the back of the copter, and I slipped on a headset. In the left front seat was a voluble Canadian firefighter, the equivalent of our American helicopter manager, who talked incessantly. As Cowboy lifted, the Canadian half-turned toward us, jabbering away.

From the left side rear I had a clear view out the windscreen. The solid conifer tree line was uncomfortably close, and I thought Cowboy should be gaining altitude a bit more quickly. At that elevation and temperature he surely had enough power. The spires of black spruce seemed to grow taller as we approached, looming before us like a stockade. Shit! We weren't going to clear the trees!

I started to crouch into the crash position — bent over at the waist, arms tucked under the thighs behind the knees — and the Canadian manager spun forward and shut up. My sphincter actually clenched as I imagined spruce tops spearing through the belly of the ship like giant pungi sticks. Five supercharged seconds passed, then all I saw out the front was sky and horizon. We must've cleared the canopy by mere inches.

The Canadian turned toward us again, grinning.

"Sorry for the interruption, lads, but I didn't think we were going to clear the trees, eh, and I wouldn't want to miss that."

Yes, the Assignment was burly and intimidating, demanding a range of skills. I'd have the chance to fail as a leader, as a tactician, as a firefighter, as a contract administrator. Sins would be simple to commit. I might not clear the trees. But I sure wouldn't want to miss it.

Miss what? Let's slice to the core: miss the chance to die. My Canadian colleague spoke only half in jest. True, it was a neat bit of bravado, a movie clip, for godssake. But there's usually a kernel of truth in a throwaway line. I accepted the Assignment — and my fire career in general — because it might kill me. There's history here.

In August 1910, the American West was blasted by wildfire. The siege became known as the Big Blowup, and over five million acres burned in the national forests. Seventy-eight firefighters perished. That same month, at Harvard University, philosopher and pacifist William James published his famous essay On the Moral Equivalent of War. Distressed by the rampant militarism of the day, he suggested that such energy and fervor be redirected. Why not draft youth into an army of laborers to further tame nature? That idealistic conscription did not transpire in 1910, and four years later the ever-popular militarism spiraled into the monstrous carnage of World War I.

But James's phrase — "moral equivalent of war" — resonated in the fledgling U. S. Forest Service, established in 1905. Was not wildfire an enemy to be fought? Historian Stephen J. Pyne has written, "Revealingly, Forest Service archival records on fire begin with the body count of the 1910 conflagration." War was declared on wildland fire. Not until three decades later would the Forest Service deem fire as anything but an adversary to be battled. In short, firefighters were soldiers. And soldiers die. James wrote, "The martial type of character can be bred without war." Yes, but it cannot be bred without blood.

During rookie training we emphasize the dangers of the fireground and, in a course titled "Standards for Survival," provide a basic code of conduct to encourage safety. The finale of the class is a practice fire shelter deployment. A fire shelter is an aluminum foil pup tent designed to reflect radiant heat. It's folded compactly into a plastic case that firefighters carry on their belts or in a field pack. If you're about to be overrun by fire, you rip the shelter from its case, shake it open into the tent shape, and scoot underneath. Unless the shelter suffers direct flame impingement, you may survive in a relatively small open area away from heavy fuels, though it will probably became painfully hot inside the tent, and difficult to breathe. At 500 degrees Fahrenheit — not outrageously hot in a fire environment — the shelter begins to delaminate and seriously weaken. Violent convection currents or wind could tear it open. Though it has saved lives, we stress that it's a last resort, like a parachute. A firefighter might be forced to remain in a shelter for fifteen to ninety minutes, or longer, essentially being tortured in a claustrophobic environment. The government booklet Your Fire Shelter therefore advises intense concentration on "an object, person, or religious symbol that is very meaningful to you." In other words, pray. It's startling and sobering to read that in a federal publication.

We line out the sober rookies for the deployment drill. While they adjust their web gear and practice reaching behind for the shelter, I indicate the direction from which the flame front is approaching. When they're in the shelters, their boots should be pointing that way because if worse comes to worst, it's better to burn your feet than your head. The standard for deployment is twenty-five seconds. I hold up my watch.

"On your mark ... go!"

Then the instructors are yelling.

"Hurry up! Let's go! The fire is right here! Come on, faster!"

They struggle and fumble, and though it's a harmless exercise, they're nervous and a little scared, and we keep on shouting.

"Twenty seconds gone! You're running out of time! You're going to burn!"

A few make it. Most take forty seconds or longer, and about 20 percent get it wrong, with a boot or an elbow sticking out. When they're all deployed I say, "Stay underneath. Think about a half hour, an hour." Even in the practice shelters it's hot and uncomfortable.

We weave through the cluster of tents and tug on the front and rear of each, simulating an unforgiving wind. Some of the shelters come off easily, and I grab an exposed boot and snap, "Foot's burning!"

Then we just let them lie there and in silence, thinking. After a few minutes I say, "Okay, your crew boss says it's all right to come out."

That's a trick. They've been taught there's no definitive way to know when it's safe to emerge. It depends — on how hot the inside surface of the shelter is (feel it with the back of your hand), whether or not there's decent air to inhale outside (carefully lift a corner of the shelter for a sample). And though the roar of the fire has abated, latent radiant heat might still burn you or a dense pall of smoke poison you with carbon monoxide.

A few respond to the "crew boss" and start to rise without performing the checks. I mock them. "Well, there's a trusting soul. And maybe dead in a few minutes!" They redden and crawl back in.

Finally, we tell them all to get up, and I watch. There are grins and kidding, and on some faces I see what I'm looking for — a kind of fierce, satisfied light, like radiant heat itself. For these, it wasn't merely a drill but a rite, and they'll celebrate it often if they stick around. The fire shelter demonstrates this is a game played for keeps. This is a job where your bosses teach that prayer might be a tool and urge you to consider the grim logic of losing your feet instead of your head. This is a vocation where it's assumed that colleagues and perhaps buddies will be injured and killed.

After the horrific fires of 1910, one survivor, a Wallace, Idaho, resident named Mrs. Swain, said, "It was a terrible ordeal, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything." Ordeal. I think of it in terms of the primitive method of determining guilt or innocence and, by extension, worthiness. One method was a trial by fire, and the medieval Saxon version had a defendant grasp a red-hot iron. If the person was innocent, God would heal the burn in three days.

Ordeal is a powerful lure. This is not fast food or MTV. It's not retail sales or software hype. It's probably not promoted on career day at the local high school. Wildland firefighting is a path to pain and not to a fat stock portfolio. There is mystery here — the romantic attraction of hardship and hazard amid a corpulent society obsessed with mammon. I understand the flinty joy of acknowledging that I'd better serve and be served by my congregation (crew), because the world (fire) doesn't care about me at all, at all. I accepted the Assignment because of the welcome danger but also for the same reason I once matriculated at a Bible school — to be a minister in a church. To scratch a line to salvation. To grasp the hot iron.

It's curious that a life of action, and occasionally turmoil, was birthed by a quiet season of reading. During the summer of 1963 (between sixth and seventh grades), I read forty books — about three per week. I passed hundreds of hours leafing pages in my room or out on the lawn in the backyard. Most were novels of adventure, intrigue, science fiction, and battle. I portaged armloads of books to and from the public library and bought fifty-cent paperbacks at a local newsstand. I didn't totally neglect baseball, swimming, and forays into the woods, but that summer is evoked not by Harmon Killebrew's signature on a Louisville Slugger, but by the aroma of the library stacks. Every summer after that I held a job, and '63 was an idyll of sorts. I remember it fondly.

I was especially fascinated by one book in particular. I don't remember the title, author, or cover, but the story is with me still: in a small town not unlike the one I lived in, a gang of friends about my age discover a large fallen tree — an oak or maple — whose trunk curves slightly up from the ground. To them it suggests the hull of a ship, and they commandeer it as a pirate vessel, sailing off to imaginary exploits — the kind of youthful make-believe that transcends mundane reality and becomes adventure in itself. They forget and I forgot that it was only a tree.

As fortune would have it, an old elm on our block — a victim of Dutch elm disease — was felled that very week. The limbs were cut and hauled off, but the massive trunk remained in the boulevard for a few days. It too curved up from the grass to mimic the prow of a ship, and I boarded it as soon as the city maintenance crew drove away. It was life imitating art imitating life, and the tales and fantasies engendered by dozens of books inspired me. I felt that old elm running with the wind on a following sea and heard Jolly Roger snapping in a zephyr. Overhead, cliffs of cumulus billowed into a blue dome now revealed by the fallen canopy of hardwood leaves. It was like I'd never seen the blue before. The freshly sawed stump exuded the pungent odor of elm sap, and to this day a whiff of that distinctive smell transports me to the furrowed bark of that "pitching" trunk. Which soon transformed from schooner to airship, bound for the flattened summits of nascent thunderheads. One reason I love helicopters is that they deliver me to the sky.

That season was more semester than summer, and those books plotted a course and a story. The many thousands of silent words made me believe in risk — convinced me that life was supposed to brandish a keenly dangerous edge, and I was meant to live the narratives of my fantasies. Beyond the biology of existence and the formidable structure of culture, life was drama. A good story. The kind of tale to keep a kid up late with a book. I imagined and assumed I would live such a story. I craved adventure.


Excerpted from "Ghosts of the Fireground"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Peter M. Leschak.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Ghosts of the Fireground: Echoes of the Great Peshtigo Fire and the Calling of a Wildland Firefighter 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While the author writes with compelling fiery precision about his personal calling as a firefighter, he does little to dispell the myriad myths that have made the Peshtigo Fire of October 8, 1871 unknown to most Americans. The Peshtigo Fire remains the 3rd deadliest disaster in our history and the deadliest fire in our history killing more than 2500 people. Leshack puts too much faith in Rev.Peter Pernin's account of that hellish night; Pernin accurately describes the details of the fire and his efforts to save people,but beyond that Pernin does not attempt to shed light on the causes or the mechanics of that blow up. The author's facts are incorrect -- from the number of the dead, to the square miles burned-- and he never seems to hit upon the fact that the Peshtigo Fire and The Chicago Fire occuring on the same night, at precisely the same hour -- 9:00 p.m. --are actually the same fire system known to fire experts as The Peshtigo Paradigm. Even today, with every modern fire fighting technique available, the fate of Peshtigo would be the same except perhaps for the death toll; modern communication, rather than telegraph, might have spared the people living in the north woods of Wisconsin, the towns of Williamsonville, Manitowoc, little and big Saumico and the surrounding Sugar Bushes. Pernin's account is stunning but limited. The real story exists in the telegrams of Generals Albert J. Myer and Henry Howgate, in the scientific papers of the little known genius Increase Allen Lapham whose meteorological records for weeks before the disaster warn of its approach, in the memoir of Isaac Stephenson co-founder of the Peshtigo Company and mostly in the little known letter of survivor Phineas Eames, who not only renders that night in painful detail, but holds the key to wind direction and the wind patterns that would resurface again at Mann Gulch in 1949.
Helcura on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Part reminiscence of wildland firefighting, part philosophical musings, and part (a small part) historical reflection, Ghosts of the Fireground is an interesting if unevenly written book. The best parts are the stories of fighting fires and Leschak's reflections on the actions of Father Perrin before, during and after the firestorm at Peshtigo.Worth reading once.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago