Fires ravaged Michigan’s thumb in 1871, 1881

January 8, 2007


ANN ARBOR—Flames are ravaging the forests and prairies of the West, but during the autumn of 1871, fire swept across part of eastern Michigan laying claim to life, property and natural resources, primarily in Sanilac, Huron and Tuscola counties.

“A sky of flame, of smoke a heavenful, the earth a mass of burning coals, the mighty trees, all works of man between and living things trembling as a child before a demon in the gale,” is how the Michigan fire of 1871 was described in a history of Sanilac County. “To those who have seen, the picture needs no painting.”

Small fires that broke out gradually ran together drawing dry air from inland rather than moist air from over the lakes. Wind carried chips and fragments, starting new fires. Big brush piles left by logging practices of the time added to the ferocity of the fires.

“The tree crowns left on the ground by logging operations created an enormous fuel for the fires,” said Burton Barnes of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. “The pine needles and stems accumulated on the ground contained heavy amounts of resin and, combined with leaves and other organic matter, burned very hot. These were not like the fires we see today, that burn hottest in the air. These fires burned hottest on the ground.”

On Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871, the fire started blowing, burning, killing and devouring everything in its path. In some communities people went to bed at night, only to be aroused at midnight by the fearful cry of “Fire!” They watched their homes, farms, livestock and belongings vanish into smoke and ashes. Some were able to save themselves. “Others, choked with flame and smoke, left only their charred bones to tell their friends where and how they died,” said one report. Thousands of acres of valuable pine were gone in a matter of hours.

The firestorm forced people of Forestville onto the beach or into the water. Some took refuge in boats, covering themselves with wet blankets. In Huron County, families tried to outrace the fire. One family climbed into a wagon, covered themselves with wet blankets and headed for a mill race a half-mile away, arriving just before the wagon caught fire. The family jumped into the race, covering themselves with more wet blankets.

In just a half-hour, Forestville was in ruins. At White Rock people plunged into the lake, but the lake was so rough that women and children were thrown back on the beach. They risked death by drowning in order be saved from death by fire. Some dug holes in the ground or a bank and managed to survive by crawling into the shelter. Losses included crops, houses, businesses, livestock, grain, hay, bridges and crossings in swamps.

“It is estimated that the dwellings, household goods, clothing, winter’s provisions and supplies for stock of from 4,000 to 5,000 people were destroyed and with the mills the means to supply food for these,” one account reported.

Yet, with all its magnitude and intensity, the fire of 1871 did not consume all the timber, but in most places only deadened the green timber and prepared the way for a more terrible calamity 10 years later. The population was denser on Sept. 5, 1881, when a firestorm traveled across Sanilac County in four hours, leaving 150 people dead and hundreds injured. To save themselves, some residents jumped into wells, remaining there for up to five hours before crawling out. Others never made it out.

After the fire of 1881 more than 14,000 people were made dependent on public aid, and 1,480 barns, 1,521 dwellings and 51 schools were destroyed. The fire was directly responsible for at least 300 deaths. Damage in 1881 was estimated to be in excess of dollar value of that time.