Monday, October 12, 2009

Ghosts of the Fireground by Peter M. Leschak

Ghosts of the Fireground cover

Ghosts of the Fireground
by Peter M. Leschak

Hardback: 271 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins
First Released: 2002

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Source: Bought from

Back Cover Description:
"On October 8, 1871, a wildfire of staggering immensity transformed the lumbering town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin (population 2,000), into a literal, burning hell. It was the deadliest fire in North American history. At least 1,200 people died, and the actual number of fatalities is unknown. Eighteen hundred square miles of wood, fields, and settlements were burned. By cruel coincidence, it was the very day and hour of the Great Chicago Fire....The unlikely simultaneity of the two infernos has rendered Peshtigo unknown to most Americans."

April of 2000: On the brink of one of the most ferocious fire seasons ever recorded, and faced with the challenge of commanding an elite attack helicopter team, wildland firefighter Peter Leschak discovers Father Pernin's written account of surviving the wildfire that devastated Peshtigo. As he takes us through Father Perin's dangerous clash with the Great Peshtigo Fire, Leschak recounts his journey from a life preparing for the ministry to a career dedicated to fighting fires. In doing so, he breathes life into one of the most astounding and little-known disasters in American history and captures the sacred and mysterious pull of the fireground.

From Father Pernin's struggle with an inferno so hot that not even the cold waters of the Peshtigo River guaranteed safety to the danger of today's frontline battles in America's wildlands, Ghosts of the Fireground weaves seamlessly between these compelling adventures, offering a breathtaking look at the awesome power of fire and the courageous and noble pursuit that is wildland firefighting.

Ghosts of the Fireground is an interesting book. It's partly Mr. Leschak's autobiography and partly a re-telling of what happened in the Pestigo fire as experienced by Father Pernin.

The narrative jumps around a lot and uses the author's experiences in the 2002 fire season as a frame for the rest of the stories. I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of what was going on in the 2002 fire situation since he would stop in the middle of his account to talk about several similar fires in his past that taught him something important or to continue his narrative about the 1871 Pestigo fire.

I found the narrative about the Pestigo fire very interesting and liked how the author explained what Father Pernin was experiencing based his knowledge of wildfires. I also found the parts about the training, techniques, work, and frontline experiences of the modern wildland firefighting to be very interesting, dramatically told (in a good way), and informative.

However, trying to wrap my brain about his every-changing religious ideas just made my brain hurt. He grew up as a Catholic. As a teenager, he heard Herbert W. Armstrong on the radio, converted to following him, and joined the Worldwide Church of God. Then he decided that Armstrong was wrong so it must all be wrong. He now worships nature, fire, danger, death, self, or whatever strikes him as sounding poetical at the moment. He states that when he dies he wants to be reborn as a great wild fire to test the worthiness of his fellow firefighters.

I worry a bit that someone will take Mr. Leschak's beliefs about what the Bible teaches as an accurate representation of what the Bible or mainstream Protestant Christianity teaches. It isn't.

There is a minor amount of cussing in the book. Overall, it' a good book if you're interested in learning more about wildland firefighting.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
Heat can enjoy a surprisingly long life span in tightly arranged fuels such as sawdust, hay, forest duff, or peat. In some cases, such sleepers (pockets of latent fire) have survived for a years or more in peat and deep duff. It's common for a lightning-struck snag to quietly smolder unnoticed for days before bursting into flame.

The spot was quickly doused, but a gale arose from the north-west and a fresh wall of flame again peppered the town [of Peshtigo] with air-borne embers. The local fire engine was deployed, and hundreds of new wooden pails were commandeered from the factory. People scattered like dogs after birds, splashing water on each fresh start, shouting and coughing. Dense smoke and whirls of ash and dust brought tears to their eyes, aggravated by rivulets of sweat. Teams of horses hauled water from the river, and over three hundred people labored through the day. Buildings on the outskirts were evacuated, their furniture and other goods shifted toward the center of town. Wet blankets were draped over roofs, and smoldering trees were felled and slapped with water.

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