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Thumb Fire, Michigan (1881)

  • By: Stephanie M. Ruhl & Patric R. Spence
  • In: Encyclopedia of Disaster Relief
  • Edited by: K. Bradley Penuel & Matt Statler
  • Subject:Public Health (general), Public Policy (general)

On Monday, September 5, 1881, two-thirds of the eastern portion of Michigan's lower peninsula (referred to as the Thumb, due to Michigan's geographic features) was engulfed in flames. The fire started in Tuscola County after eyewitnesses reported an intensely dark sky that resembled an eclipse. Within 24 hours, the firestorm traced a southwest to northeast path, destroying one million acres along the way.

A decade prior, Michigan had experienced a series of fires that swept from the shores of Lake Michigan on the west side of the state to Lake Huron on the east. The primary area of devastation in the 1871 fires was in the Thumb, specifically Sanilac, Huron, and Tuscola counties, leaving behind massive amounts of deadened foliage to serve as fuel for ...

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