[meteorite-list] Could A Meteorite or Comet Cause All The Fires of1871?
From: Sterling K. Webb <kelly_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Mon Aug 23 22:40:49 2004
So many people have joined in the general pooh-poohing that I can't copy
The Web site mentioned in the article is complete trash and the "crater"
is imaginary, as was pointed out years ago on this very List (not by me). Ken
Rieli is a complete crackpot, and Mr. Wood appears to be a recent convert,
although the newspaper article does not make it clear whether they even know
of each other.
But the fires are real and have been thought to require an explanation for
a long time, even by non-crackpots. The literature on the subject goes back a
These strange fires were not restricted to the IL-WI-MI triangle centered
around the southern end of Lake Michigan. Because of the slowness of
communication in 1871, it was not immediately recognized that the fires of
October 8, 1871 were scattered over parts of seven states and Canada and may
have caused as many as 10,000 deaths.
The scope of this disaster led a Minnesota Congressman, Ignatius Donnelly,
to write a super-best-seller book called RAGNAROK shortly after the fires, in
which he put forth the Comet Biela theory. RAGNAROK was so financially
successful that Donnelly quit Congress to write more books including one in
which he invents the modern whacko concept of Atlantis, a trick that made him
even more money.
So the first question is: does the simultaneous outbreak of a number of
very bad fires over a large area after a dry summer require any special
explanation? Common sense says no, hence the large number of responses going
pooh-pooh to this retired engineer who's reviving a 130-year-old crackpot
theory, with his own twist: frozen methane, which unfortunately for his theory
will not start fires, but only create, well, you know what.
However, the characteristics of these fires are so abnormal that from the
very day they occurred they have been considered mysterious. Peshtigo was a
town of mills and factories, 4 hotels, 15 stores, and 360 homes, and a total
population of 2000 people. In minutes, 1152 people died. The conditions were
hot, dry, and WINDLESS. The same conditions prevailed at all the sites of the
Stone buildings were reduced to calcinated ash. One large house was
observed to burst into flame and rise 85 feet in the air on its own updraft.
Large numbers of victims had no burns or injuries; they simply suffocated in
the oxygenless air (a demonstration, by the way, that this was not a fire
accelerated by wind). The largest number of survivors escaped into the woods
surrounding the town (demonstrating that was not a forest fire). A total of
nine towns in four Wisconsin counties were essentially exterminated at the
same time. In one town of 260, the death rate was 100%; no one survived.
What happened in Peshtigo remained a "mystery" until after World War II.
All the evidence and survivor testimony suggests it was a "firestorm," a
non-natural phenomenon which was employed as a weapon of war (once discovered
by accident). The creation of a firestorm requires a concentrated stock of
combustibles (a city), hot dry windless weather, and the simultaneous
application of a large number, many thousands, of ignition sources.
As a weapon of war, it is actually more devastating than nuclear weaponry
(my opinion). "Successful" firestorm attacks in 1945 killed 85,000 people in
Hamburg (the accident that, once explained, showed what a firestorm was), a
quarter million people in Dresden, and nearly a million people in Tokyo.
(Humans can always improve on things, can't they?)
A firestorm is a multi-sourced fire so rapidly ignited over a large area
of combustibles that temperature in the core region rises to thousands of
degrees in minutes. The "updrafts" from this heat source achieve vertical
velocities of hundreds of miles per hour.
As a result, cool (heavy) oxygenated air from all directions is drawn
inward at ground level at high speeds (50 to 100 mph) toward, but never
reaching, the radiant core, the oxygen being totally depleted at the
"firewall" or flame front before the core is reached. Firestorms spread
upwind, that is, in all directions outward from the core, the "firewall" being
the boundary between oxygenated and de-oxygenated air.
The continuous influx of oxygen is the key; given enough radiant heat and
oxygen, ANYTHING will burn. The mechanism is self-sustaining until every fuel
source in the ever-expanding core (including the less familiar ones like
stone, brick, some metals, and people) is exhausted.
I'm not going to detail the more bizarre and Dantesque characteristics of
a firestorm -- go read some history. But the key point for this discussion is
the fact that a firestorm is not a natural phenomenon. It simply cannot happen
unless human beings make it happen, as far as we know. The scale, speed,
temperatures, and destruction produced by firestorms are without parallel in
so-called "natural" events. They are an order of magnitude (or two or three)
out of the ordinary. But so are the fires of 1871. Nothing like them has
happened before or since, no matter how many "dry summers" there have been.
Early attempts to start firestorms using only 2000 to 3000 incendiary
devices dropped simultaneously failed. It takes 8000 (usually) or more.
Interestingly enough, early nuclear weapons dropped on cities were not enough
to get a really good firestorm going. So you can see how hard it is to start
Peshtigo was overshadowed by the "Great" Chicago Fire (which happened at
the same time) even though more people were killed at little Peshtigo than at
Chicago. Careful examination of the reports indicates clearly that both
"fires" were firestorms. In Chicago, a "solid wall" of fire advanced "upwind"
in the face of a 40 mph wind (forced oxygenation and radiative acceleration),
buildings blocks from any visible flames burst into flame instantaneously
(radiative ignition), and ingots of iron stored on the banks of the Chicago
river downtown melted and ran into the river (requires temperatures in excess
of 2700 degrees F). These are all definitive of a firestorm.
You can forget the one-cow theory. You can forget the 10,000-arsonists
theory. In Peshtigo, the first event those who were awake agreed on was a
blinding aerial flash, a thunderous detonation, hundreds or thousands of
sudden little fires springing up everywhere, and the slow inrush of that
terrible wind that turned their little town into a furnace in a time frame too
brief for most of the inhabitants to escape. There are (but not universally)
similar reports from everywhere these fires occurred.
October 8 is the date of the now-weak Draconid meteor shower (or was in
the 1870's). The source of the Draconids is Comet Giaccobi-Zinner. This comet
was one of the first to be observed by a passing spacecraft. It's shape is a
"pancake" whose equatorial diameter is five times its polar diameter. It is
rotationally disrupted and material at the equator of the comet is virtually
weightless. This disruption (which has to have been sudden and not
progressive) has to have occurred very recently since the comet is dissipating
rapidly and would be gone already if the disruption had happened very long
The radiant in Draconis is always above the horizon if you're far enough
north. The terminus of the longest grazing path for Draconids (which would be
the orbit of the heaviest fragments with the highest velocities) lies at 45
degrees north latitude (Peshtigo, Chicago, Michigan). A multitude of clusters
of comet fragments air-bursting would produce a simultaneous barrage of
Tunguska-like events with sufficient thermal output to produce numerous
ignitions at ground zero.
The date, 1871, is before the invention and deployment of either
seismographs or barographs, so no evidence of these air-bursts would have been
obtained as they were in the case of Tunguska. The case for the fires of 1871
has to be evaluated on the basis of the evidence.
That's my "explanation" of the 1871 fires, scientifically feasible, I
think, and boy! do I hate it when another crackpot comes along with an
inferior crackpot theory, particularly when he stole his theory from a crazy
dead Congressman! It makes all us crackpots look bad!
On the other hand, isn't a story like "Citizen Steals From Congressman!" a
little like the classic "Man Bites Dog!"?
Sterling K. Webb
Ron Baalke wrote:
> Could a meteorite or comet cause all the fires of 1871?
> By Dale Killingbeck
> Cadillac News (Michigan)
> August 23, 2004
Received on Mon 23 Aug 2004 10:38:25 PM PDT