By Charles Towne
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you
saying: ‘This is the way, walk ye in it.’ “ (Isaiah 30: 21)
We were fighting forest fire in Northern Michigan. For three days we dug fire breaks only to have the fire sweep around us. We would have to retreat only to begin all over again.
It seemed that our lungs would burst from breathing the super heated air. We worked endlessly with bandanas covering our noses and mouths and at times the smoke would swirl around us and we would be forced to run for our lives, choking and gasping, tears streaming from smoke reddened eyes. There was never enough water and when we were relieved we slept like dead men.
On the evening of the fourth day the fire was stopped, but not by us. It rained, and it rained and it rained. That fire didn’t have a chance, and without the rain, neither did we.
I walked over the area which had been lush forest only days before, nothing green remained, nothing but a blackened, fire blighted land lay around me. I heard a sound and followed it to its source to discover a black bear cub, horribly burned. I ended its agony with a bullet.
A while later, I crossed a trout stream and found it to be choked with the debris and ash from the fire. Dozens of trout floated belly up in the stream that only days before had been a fly fisherman’s dream.
Over the years I was to fight forest fires several more times, but never again did I see the devastation that I witnessed that first time.
October 8, 1871 was a date that was literally burned into history when the fourth largest city in the nation was, for all practical purposes, destroyed by fire. At that time, Chicago had a population of 350,000 citizens and was growing rapidly. On October 8 a fire started.
There were those that believed the fire was caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s much maligned cow. Mrs. O’Leary objected to the defamation of her cow’s character and blamed the fire on ‘communist incendiaries’. No one will ever know the real cause, but the affect has been well documented.
The city burned for two days and was finally extinguished by torrential rain showers. More than a third of the city’s population was left homeless; between 18,000 and 19,000 buildings were destroyed and 200 people were either dead or missing. Over 50,000 people left the city believing that Chicago would never be rebuilt. By some estimates, the city suffered $200,000,000 in property loss.
But who can judge the human spirit? Those who left were wrong, for within a year a
new Chicago rose from the ashes of the old, and within three years not a trace
remained of the disaster.
Yes, everyone has heard of the great Chicago fire… after all, it is part of our nation’s history.
But how many have heard of Peshtigo?
On the same night that a third of Chicago was destroyed, another fire swept through the thriving village of Peshtigo, Wisconsin and resulted in what some have considered, in terms of loss of human life, the greatest natural disaster our country has ever suffered.
Due to drought conditions which had persisted for some time, the forest was tinder dry in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. It seemed fires at times sprang up from spontaneous combustion. People became accustomed to the wild fires, and these raging fires were allowed to burn themselves out. After all, little could be done.
Peshtigo was a booming lumbering community with a population of 2000 and home for the largest woodenware factory in the United States.
On October 7, 1871 the night was lit by an orange glow which seemed to reach into the very heavens over Peshtigo. And on October 8, the fire struck the town just as it did Chicago. As Chicago burned, so did the small Wisconsin community, only with a few notable differences.
While a third of Chicago was burned, the entire village of Peshtigo was destroyed. Only one house was left standing. But the fire’s greatest claim to fame, or infamy if you will, was the loss of life. By some estimates, as many as 1200 people perished in the flames as Peshtigo was consumed.
There were countless stories of heroism, as well as cowardice. Virtually not a family was untouched by the fire, and in fact entire families perished. There is no way to ascertain how many people actually died.
Out of this tragedy, I would like to share three stories of humanity, of deliverance,
and of hope.
Some distance from Peshtigo, a mill owner rallied his two brothers to save their sawmill from the fire storm rushing toward them. This mill owner, our hero, was a rough and tumble giant of a man who was as apt to kick a door down as open it. He was also known for his blasphemous ways. He and his brothers climbed to the roof of the mill and proceeded to try and beat out the fires that caught in the dry shingles. At last, realizing the futility of their efforts, the mill owner stopped fighting the fire and glared defiantly into the heavens. Shaking his fist at God, whom he had denied existed, he shouted, “Well, TAKE the place if you want it so bad!”
Just as he realized his helplessness, as he stood there gazing into the fire-brightened heavens, something wet touched his cheek. Rain! It had begun to rain! His mill was saved! The big, coarse, blasphemous lumberjack fell to his knees there on the roof of his sawmill and he tried to pray…except he didn’t know how… so he did the next best thing. He jumped to his feet, and waving his hat in the air he shouted at the top of his lungs, “HURRAH FOR GOD! HURRAH FOR GOD!”
A mother, fleeing the flames, was overtaken by several others possessed of the same inspiration. One of these, a man realizing the futility of their flight, encouraged the group to lie down in a shallow ditch at the side of the road and take advantage of what scant protection it provided. Some carried blankets which they spread over their backs to protect them from the hail of sparks and wind blown burning embers. Suddenly there was a scream from the mother, “Oh my God, my baby, where is my baby?” For you see, the bundle she carried was nothing more than a bundle of blankets. In her flight, the baby had slipped from her grasp.
The man looked around hoping to see the infant, but what he saw caused him to shout out in consternation causing the others to look. The air was filled with smoke and ash, the flames were all around them; the very sky appeared to be on fire. As they watched, huge trees seemed to ignite before the fire even touched them. But the thing that caused them to weep with frustration was that the baby, the tiny helpless infant, lay in the center of the narrow road, completely exposed to the fire. To go to the infant was certain death. The flames seemed to meet in a fiery arch over the tiny form. And now, those in the ditch were forced to restrain the grief-stricken mother as they concentrated on their own survival. When the fire passed, the survivors went with the mother to recover the infant’s body. And what did they find? A dead child? No! The baby was alive!
Those who had taken refuge in the ditch and covered themselves with blankets had all suffered some burns, but the baby had suffered no injury. Not a hair on the infant’s head was singed.
A group of men digging a firebreak beyond the village found themselves cut off and surrounded by flames. Some, frightened beyond reason, were beyond themselves with fear. They rushed around the clearing frantically searching for an escape, but there was none. Some were cursing God for not helping them. Chaos reigned over the scene.
Soon, as the flames drew close, one by one the men dropped to their knees in prayer. Suddenly a voice was heard above the roar of the fire: “Come this way! Hurry! THERE IS YET TIME TO ESCAPE! Come, hurry!”
With great hope the men rushed in the direction of the voice, and as they approached what appeared to be a solid wall of flames, the fire seemed to diminish. They passed through to a large clearing, and all were saved. They looked and searched for their rescuer, but there was no one there.
But I believe, Father God, the Pursuer of our souls was there. In each of these stories, I believe He is the one who was the true Hero.
God doesn’t save just to save our hides; no, He saves to save our souls. Out of the fire that threatens to consume us, He calls, and He becomes our Holy guide. He will take us safely beyond the fire in His way, His time, leading us to safety now, and for eternity.
HURRAH FOR GOD!, HURRAH FOR GOD!
Charles Towne is first and foremost a Christian. An octogenarian, author, journalist, wildlife photographer, naturalist, caregiver, and survivor, his life has been and continues to be, a never-ending adventure filled with possibilities never imagined. He has adopted the philosophy that to Live fully, laugh uproariously, love passionately, and learn like there is no tomorrow, is a formula for a long and joy-filled life.