Great Thumb Forest Fire

by mobrian on September 1, 2008

Did you know in September of 1881 Michigan experienced a massive forest fire which devastated almost a million acres and several hundred people died. The fire engulfed Huron, Sanilac, Saint Clair, Tuscola and Lapeer Counties.  This was the second fire in a ten year span which affected the area.  The first fire in 1871 was highly unpublicized due to major fires in Chicago and Wisconsin.    This fire was one of the major catalyst for the creation of Michigan’s first forest fire act (PA 249) in 1903.

Michigan DNR reports that

In the summer of 1871, a drought occurred over much of the Great Lakes region. Slash and debris from logging and land clearing became tinder-dry during the months without rain. From early August no rain fell, pastures and gardens dried up, wells went dry, streams shrank to a mere trickle, and crops failed. Set carelessly or by settlers in clearing land, fires burned everywhere, and ran uncontrolled into the woods and swamps where they continued to smolder. September was equally dry. On October 8, a great wildfire struck the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing 1300 people in a single night (the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, which received the greater attention). This fire burned over 1,100,000 acres in Wisconsin and Michigan before late fall rains put it out. The Peshtigo wildfire is considered the most devastating fire in U.S. history in terms of both lives and property lost.

Overshadowed by the Peshtigo fire and the Chicago fire, a major wildfire swept across lower Michigan at the same time. This fire received little publicity, although two hundred people lost their lives in this fire, and 1,200,000 acres were burned. Like other great conflagrations, it was not a single fire but a combination of hundreds of fires, small and large, that had been burning unattended for weeks, only to flare up and unite when conditions became acute.

The disaster was most complete between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. Here “an area 40 miles square was completely devastated, and over 50 people were found burned to death.” While the worst was over by October 19, the fire wasn’t completely out for over a month. No accurate record of the area burned or the loss sustained was ever made, but it has been estimated that more than 2 million acres burned over, several hundred families were left homeless, and that at least 200 lives were lost.

Ten years later, the Thumb area of Michigan was again hit by a major catastrophe. While not as extensive as the 1871 fire, the fire of September 1881, commonly known as the Thumb fire, was more severe and did more damage since settlers had begun pouring into the region and logging had gotten underway. As a result, more people were rendered homeless and the loss was greater. It is estimated that this fire burned well over one million acres, cost 282 lives, and did more than $2,250,000 worth of damage.

Like the 1871 fire, the fire of 1881 came at the end of an extremely severe drought and was the result of hundreds of land-clearing fires whipped into a seething cauldron of flame by high winds. It was worse in the Saginaw Valley and Thumb region where it burned over much of the same territory that had burned ten years before.

On September 4, 1881 was the the first response by the American Red Cross as a relief effort to help those affected by the fire.  Clara Barton took the devastation to prove to government and the public that an active  American Red Cross was needed.

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