Lauren Tarshis 2015-07-13 04:11:07
VOCABULARY Population: the total number of people in a particular area Thriving: growing quickly Erupted: burst out suddenly and violently Well: a deep hole in the ground from which you can get water Reunion: a meeting of people who have been apart In 1871, a terrifying wildfire burned through Wisconsin. More than 1,200 people died. An entire city burned to the ground. Millions of trees were destroyed. It became known as the Great Peshtigo Fire—the deadliest wildfire in American history. This is the true story of one family that survived. Everything was burning, and there was nothing John Kramer could do but watch. Smoke filled the air, blocking out sunlight. The sky had turned blood-red. In the distance, John saw fire in the trees. It was October 8, 1871. John, 7, and his brother, Mike, 9, were crouching in a dirt field near the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. All around them, a wildfire burned out of control. Trees exploded. Metal melted. People choked on the thick smoke. For now, John and Mike were safe. The field was bare. It had no trees or bushes that could catch fire. But the boys had no idea if their parents were alive. Fear must have filled John’s heart. All he could do was cling to his brother and wait. So Many Trees One year earlier, the Kramers had moved to Peshtigo from upstate New York. When they arrived, John had been amazed. He’d never seen so many trees. Peshtigo lay at the edge of the North Woods—one of the largest forests in North America. It covered thousands of square miles, and contained millions of trees. A person could walk for weeks without ever leaving the forest. Almost no one lived in the forest. It was filled with bears, wolves, and other wild creatures. To John, it must have seemed like something out of a fairy tale. But the forest was changing. The U.S. population was growing quickly. People needed wood to build new towns and cities. The North Woods was a perfect place to get that wood. Workers moved to the forest. They started cutting down trees. The wood, or lumber, was used to build new houses and other buildings. The lumber business turned Peshtigo into a thriving town. But no one who lived there knew what was about to happen. Smoke and Flames In the forest, lumber workers burned leaves and branches from the trees they cut down. Usually, these fires went out by themselves. But the weather had been very hot and dry in 1871. Trees and plants had dried out. By early October, several fires in the woods had been burning for weeks. Fear swept through Peshtigo. People knew that their homes—and lives—were in danger When the Kramers awoke on the morning of October 8, they saw a small blaze in the trees just outside their house. Mr. and Mrs. Kramer ordered the boys to go to the empty field for safety, and promised to meet their sons there later that night. But Mr. and Mrs. Kramer never arrived. Wall of Fire At around 10 p.m., the fires in the woods joined together into one monster blaze. Flames erupted out of the forest. The fire moved toward Peshtigo faster than a speeding train. The air heated to above 500 degrees Fahrenheit. A wall of fire rose a mile into the sky. In moments, hundreds of homes and businesses burned to ashes. People’s hair and clothes caught fire. Many people escaped by jumping into the Peshtigo River. In the field, John and Mike Kramer buried their heads in the soil to protect themselves from the heat. Their parents were still nowhere in sight. What had happened to them? Mr. and Mrs. Kramer had spent that long, hot day trying to save their house.They thought they could put out the fire in the trees. But after hours of work, they realized it was hopeless. The Kramers left their house just in time, carrying only a mattress with them. They tried to reach the safety of the open field. But a wall of fire blocked their way. Their only hope was a nearby well dug deep into the ground. The Kramers climbed in. They soaked their mattress with water and hid underneath it for protection from the heat and flames. Above them, the fire raged for hours. A Tearful Reunion By morning, the fire had finally burned out. Much of the forest was gone. Peshtigo was in ashes. More than 1,200 people were dead. But John and Mike were alive. They stumbled out of the field. Their eyes ached from the smoke. Their clothes were black with soot. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Kramer climbed out of the well, shivering from the cold water. The whole family was alive. The joy of their reunion helped them through the difficult times ahead. Their house was gone. So were many of their friends. But the Kramers decided to stay and help rebuild. In fact, John Kramer spent the rest of his life in Peshtigo. He died there at age 81, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. By then, most Americans had forgotten about the Peshtigo Fire. But more than 140 years later, it remains the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history.
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