Fire Falls & Fireballs

By Vincent H. Gaddis

On the evening of October 8, 1871, the Midwestern states lay hot and parched beneath a clear sky. For three months there had been a drought, and the humidity had been very low for weeks. The desiccated air rested like a heavy blanket over the sprawling buildings of Chicago, the forests of the north, and the prairies to the west.

It was Sunday, and as the worshipers left their churches they had no suspicion that the worst fiery catastrophe in America’s history would soon strike in flaming fury. In loss of life and property destruction, it holds the record, yet the complete story is practically unknown. Attention has been focused on the individual horrors of that tragic night.

It came at approximately 9:30 P.M. — a strong wind from the southwest. It fanned scattered forest and prairie fires into colossal torches. It sparked the explosive air, and at locations hundreds of miles apart, tremendous conflagrations broke out. Seas of combustion rolled in seven states and struck twenty-four cities and towns.

It was the night of the great Chicago fire, the Peshtigo horror, the holocausts at Manistee and Glen Haven, and vast prairie and forest fires in Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, and the Dakotas.

The greatest loss of life occurred in Wisconsin. Into an area of 400 square miles, from Brown County north to near Marinette and along both shores of Green Bay, the blazing hurricane descended, destroying 1,500 lives. It has been estimated that 750 inhabitants were killed outright by the suffocating cloud that dropped from the crimson heavens. Nine towns in four counties were completely consumed.

At Menekaune the residents who survived were driven into the waters of the bay, and at Williamsonville only four persons out of seventy-eight were left alive. But it was at Peshtigo that the conflagration reaped its most terrible harvest.

Early on Sunday evening Peshtigo was a community of several factories and mills, fifteen stores and hotels, 350 homes, and a population of 2,000. When dawn came on Monday, not a building remained and over half of Peshtigo’s citizens were dead. Four times as many persons perished in this single town as in the flames that destroyed the heart of Chicago at the same time.

Survivors told of the strange intensity of the torrent of fire and the density of the smoke. First, there had been a glare in the sky, then a great noise that rumbled like thunder in increasing volume from the south and west. Sharp detonations, caused by the explosion of methane gas rising from the hot swamps and marshes, rose above the crash of falling trees. Within seconds, propelled by a twisting wind, the carnival of combustion passed through the town — a fiery cyclone that swept the roofs from houses and filled the superheated air with blazing debris. Buildings literally exploded in flames. Screams were drowned in the steady shriek of the wind.

One eyewitness wrote:

In one awful instant a great flame shot up in the western heavens, and in countless fiery tongues struck downward into the village, piercing every object that stood in the town like a red-hot bolt. A deafening roar, mingled with blasts of electric flame, filled the air and paralyzed every soul in the place. There was no beginning to the work of ruin; the flaming whirl wind swirled in an instant through the town. All heard the first inexplicable roar, some aver that the earth shook, while a few avow that the heavens opened and the fire rained down from above. The tornado was but momentary, but was succeeded by maelstroms of fire, smoke, cinders and red-hot sand that blistered the flesh.l

Most of the frenzied inhabitants who survived the first shock fled for the Peshtigo River that bisected the town. Whirling blasts of heat, in which inhalation was annihilation, continued to circle among the homes blazing like torches in the murky gloom.

One house on the edge of town, caught by cross-currents of wind, was raised a hundred feet into the air where it burst into flames. Several volunteer firemen made an attempt to get a hose into action, but it was reduced to ashes almost immediately.

Over the river was a wooden bridge. Crowds from both sides, blindly seeking a place of safety, met in the center to tangle into a mass of shouting, struggling humanity. Then the bridge, already burning briskly, collapsed. The river itself was jammed with survivors, many of whom had lost their hair and clothing. They were joined in the stream by terrified cattle, horses, and swine, released by blazing fences and barns; men and animals alike fought to escape from the huge burning logs that drifted down with the current.

Flaming branches and bits of timber, tossed by the erratic winds, filled the air, and sheets of flame leaped above trees and united overhead in a red, ghastly ceiling. Some who had fled to clearings on the outskirts discovered their mistake too late, but one group found safety in a low, swampy area on the eastern edge of the town where they had lain flat on the ground.
Another group, however, had crowded into a large brick building, only to be reduced to piles of calcined ashes. The total of deaths was eventually set at 1,152.

During the early morning hours the flames died down, and the intense heat slowly drifted away. At dawn the survivors stumbled in from the swamp and crawled out of the river. Many were suffering from severe burns and exposure. And around them, where the town had stood and the forests beyond, all was a smoking, blackened waste as far as their eyes could see.

Twenty bodies were found without a mark, with death due to asphyxiation. A mother had dug a hole in the soil with her bare hands, laid her baby in it, and thrown her body over the cavity. The infant was dead — smothered and the mother’s body was a charred heap. One farmer near the town, trapped on all sides by walls of fire, had shot his family and himself.

More fortunate was another father with five children and a bedridden wife. He had dragged his wife’s bed to the river and had allowed it to sink until her body up to her head was covered with water. All survived.
Help came to Peshtigo from Marinette, the nearest town, late Monday. But due to the Chicago fire, it was several weeks before public attention could be directed to the stricken cities and towns of Wisconsin and Michigan. The governors of both states were forced to issue special proclamations for assistance.

Peshtigo was not alone in its agony that tragic night. In the Sugar Bush settlements to the west about 260 persons died. Here in the extended clearings, at places four miles in width, bodies were found far from trees and buildings, with no evidence of fire on or around them. In the forests surrounding the clearings, trees up to three feet in diameter had been mowed down like grass.

“The track of the great Sunday night tornado,” says one account, “on the west side commenced about six miles north of Oconto, extending fifteen miles in width, and running parallel thirty miles northward down the bay. The track on the east side commencing in the town of Humboldt, ranged ten miles in width, sweeping northeast forty miles to Big Sturgeon Bay. The west side district took in the village of Peshtigo, the Sugar Bush settlements, the village of Menekaune, at the mouth of the Menominee, and the Birch Creek settlement, eight miles beyond in the borders of Michigan. All were swept out of existence.”2

At Williamson’s Mills almost every member of the community’s fourteen families perished. Surrounded by fire on all sides, thirty-two of the inhabitants had removed the top from a large well and had dropped into the water. All had died. The death toll along the east shore of Green Bay peninsula was estimated at 150. The fires continued to burn in some places for two months.

Wisconsin’s scenes of destruction were being duplicated in Michigan where forests fires were raging throughout the state. On the peninsula between Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay, all territory east of the bay and north of a point forty miles above Port Huron was almost entirely burned bare. Towns along the shores were encircled by blazing forests, and their inhabitants forced into the lake. Survivors were picked up by steamers from Detroit for days.

Within this region of 1,400 square miles twelve communities were wiped out and eleven partially destroyed. Fifty bodies were found in one village near Port Huron. Losses ran to many millions of dollars, and thousands of people were left homeless.

In the west and on the shore of Lake Michigan major fires broke out in the cities of Muskegon, Manistee, Glen Haven and Holland. Glen Haven and Manistee were almost totally destroyed with the loss of hundreds of buildings. Almost two hundred farms in the vicinity of Holland were reduced to a stark wasteland.

Nor did the center of the state escape. The city of Saginaw suffered a $100,000 fire, and almost the entire Saginaw Valley, south to Flint, was struck. All the male citizens of Midland and Bay City, north of the valley, and Lansing, to the south, were pressed into service as firefighters, and successfully kept the flames from their homes.

Gratiot County, also in the center of the state, and the counties of Alpena, Alcona, and Iosco in the northeast, were devastated. In Michigan, too, the fires continued to burn for weeks, although on Monday night — one day too late — rain fell in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan putting out some of the fires.

Simultaneously on Sunday night the forests and prairies to the south and west were aflame in parts of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. No loss of life was reported, but the destruction of timber and harvests was great.

In Minnesota the counties of Wright, Meecher, Carver, and McLeod were inundated by fire, and the flames came within sight of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Fifty lives were lost, but the towns were saved. Further west, prairie fires were racing across the Dakotas. Near Yankton, South Dakota, observers said the sheets of flame were thirty feet in height, and moved as rapidly as “a fleet horse could run.”3

It was the Great Chicago Fire of that disastrous night that dominated the headlines. A city of wooden structures, it had already suffered a blaze that destroyed four blocks the evening before. Then, at 9:25 P.M. on Sunday night, the fire broke out in the lumber district on the west side, quickly leaped the river, and spread to the north and east to the lake front.

For twenty-seven hours it created scenes of panic and horror. The historic conflagration destroyed approximately 17,500 buildings, left about 100,000 inhabitants homeless, and the loss was set at $200 million — a tremendous sum in those days. It took 250 lives. This was the total of bodies found, but “at least as many more were believed to have been consumed in the fire, which in places reached temperatures as high as three thousand degrees Fahrenheit.”4

The exact cause of the fire was never determined, despite the legend of Mrs. Patrick O’Leary’s lantern-kicking cow. The first alarm, it is true, came from the O’Leary’s barn on DeKoven Street, but Fire Marshall Williams, in his official report, states that this fire was soon under control, and “it would not have gone a foot farther; but the next thing I knew they came and told me that St. Paul’s Church, about two blocks north, was on fire.” The church fire was checked but “the next thing I knew the fire was in Bateharn’s planing-mill.”5

Other scattered alarms followed, the conflagrations finally joining in one vast titanic tide of combustion, fanned by a gale that turned the water to spray a dozen feet from the hose nozzles.

Reporters told of buildings, far beyond the line of fire, that burst into flames simultaneously from the interior “as if a regiment of incendiaries were at work. What latent power enkindled the inside of these advanced buildings while externally they were untouched?” And there were references to a “food for fire in the air, something mysterious as yet and unexplainable. Whether it is atmospheric or electric is yet to be determined.”6

The flames melted the hardest building stone, and displayed fantastic color patterns of blue, red, and green. At one point near the Union Depot the wall of fire doubled on its path and burned half a mile southward in the very teeth of the gale.

Unlike most fires, it left nothing half-burned. Six-story structures were destroyed in five minutes by the watch. Several hundred tons of pig iron piled on the river bank, and two hundred feet from the nearest building, were melted into one huge, solid mass.

Because the numerous fires of that tragic autumn night have been treated as separate occurrences by almost all historians with the only relationship that of coincidence, the full extent of what happened could only be discovered at this late date by research into localized sources. Thus we have only passing references to fires in the Sierras and Rocky Mountains in the west, in the Alleghenies to the east, in the Red River region in the north, and tornadoes in Canada.7

Seemingly the widespread fires that October evening were fanned into conflagrations by a windstorm that began in the west, swept across the western and Midwestern prairies, over the tinder-dry wooden buildings of Chicago, then north and east, dipping into parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, and on into Ontario and Nova Scotia. In Montreal and Toronto houses were blown down by tornadoes; and off Halifax, Nova Scotia, a gale destroyed several ships. Finally this mighty river of wind passed over the Atlantic, where, according to the Annual Record of Science (1875, p. 241), it may have deposited the ashes that fell on the Azores.

“The same gale that blew upon Chicago,” said the governor of Wisconsin, “swept over the burning woods of Michigan and Wisconsin, increasing to a tornado and fanning the scattered fires into a general conflagration.”

The situation was ripe for disaster. The long drought, the exceptionally low humidity, and high temperatures in the region had created an explosive atmosphere. Fires were already burning in the forests and on the prairies, and were breaking out in Chicago. Then along came the gale, spreading the existing fires rapidly in the dry heated air, and carrying embers that set aflame forested islands half a mile from shore in Lake Michigan.

The terrific heat played bewildering tricks. The iron tip of the Peshtigo fire wagon was melted, but the wooden tongue to which it was bolted was not even scorched. Boulders in the center of clearings half a mile wide were cracked apart, and trees were burned down into their roots. In the Sugar Bush area a man’s body, fully clothed and unmarked by fire, was found, but coins in the victim’s pocket were partially fused.8

Despite their widespread extent, there was no mystery about the origin of the fires, but the speed and intensity of the gale that came out of the west and apparently travelled as far east as the Azores was the subject of much speculation at the time. There was no “food for fire” in the air other than the known conditions of heat, low humidity, and plenty of dry, combustible materials. There is evidence that in Chicago, incendiaries did start some fires ahead of the fiery tide.

As for the gale, we have no reason to believe that it was more than an unusually violent and intense windstorm of the equinoctial period. But in 1871, stunned by the disaster, some writers wondered if there could have been an external cause.

Thus Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota congressman arid author, came up with an interesting theory. In his book Ragnarok he suggested that the gale had been created when the earth had passed through the tail of Biela’s comet. He pointed out that the comet — its calculated orbit passing unusually close to our planet — had split into two parts from the earth’s gravitational pull in 1846.

Then, to the astonishment of astronomers, it failed to return in 1866, but suddenly showed up with a meteoric display in November 1872. However, its tail was missing, and Donnelly suggests that the gaseous portion of the tail was drifting through space, and that the earth passed through it on the night of the great fires.

Regarding Donnelly’s theory, it may be added that the famed Tunguska meteorite that struck in north-central Siberia between the Yenesey and Lena Rivers on June 30, 1908, is now believed to have been a small comet. Previously it was thought to have been a conventional meteor that exploded just before reaching the earth, but the absence of large craters and meteoric fragments has been puzzling.

It landed in the wilderness of a swamp forest with an explosion seen and heard for four hundred miles around. Trees and a herd of reindeer directly below the impact area were obliterated, while other trees within a twenty-five mile circle were levelled, snapped like matchsticks and burned by the blast. In the past, some scientists have said that the mass was apparently traveling in the orbit of the Pons-Winnecke comet and that it might have been a detached fragment of this comet.

Then, in the spring of 1963, K. Florensky, head of an expedition sent to the site by the Academy of Science of the USSR, announced that the evidence “now indicates that the body was a comet.” This evidence includes its friable structure which resulted from the explosion; its trail of dust directed away from the sun, which caused unusual sunsets over Europe at the time; its orbit which resembled that of a comet; and the fact that there were no large fragments. In fact, the expedition found no fragments, but did find tiny particles of cosmic matter in soil samples. A narrow strip of increased concentration of these particles was found extending more than 150 miles north-westerly from the impact site.

“According to modern views,” Florensky said, “the nucleus of a comet consists of cosmic dust cemented by solidified gases. Comets also include ammonia, methane and other volatile substances, which are stable only in the absolute cold of outer space. Thus, even the braking action of the atmosphere is sufficient to cause such a body to vaporize explosively without ever hitting the ground.”

There is, however, another probable source for atmospheric fire i.e., fire falls and certain non-meteoric fireballs much closer to us than the wandering comets of the spaceways. Space itself, of course, is full of radiation: energetic particles such as electrons and protons, high-frequency waves like gamma and X-rays, and a variety of cosmic rays. Life on earth is protected from this radiation by the atmosphere.

This possible source is the now-notorious Van Allen belts, a relatively recent discovery that emphasizes the fact that we know very little about our own atmosphere at higher levels, and even less about outer space. In March 1958, it was announced that our Explorer satellites had confirmed the existence of these belts, and scientists were quoted as stating that their “radiation was a thousand times more powerful than anticipated.”9

The Van Allen belts, or zones, are vast seething seas of hot lethal radiation and electromagnetic energy electrons and protons trapped by the earth’s magnetic field. They have no clearly defined limits but begin “several hundred miles out and extend with varying intensity for some 40,000 miles into space.”10

Below these zones are aerial “rivers of electricity” that were studied during the International Geophysical Year currents of electrified particles that flow through the ionosphere and follow the path of sunlight around the earth. One is the Equatorial Electrojet, which girdles our planet at the magnetic equator and has an intensity of several hundred thousand amperes. Other currents within this continuous medium are believed to circle the earth in both polar regions, in the zones where the aurora borealis appears.

We have in these belts the possible spawning grounds for fire falls and fireballs that seemingly drop from unknown heights, regardless of weather conditions, as spheroids or masses of some kind of illuminated gas or condensed energy. They apparently become detached from a layer of balanced force, becoming visible as they descend into a denser atmospheric medium and then disintegrate. They may dissipate slowly or rapidly, but in the end they expire with a blast of radiant energy and intense heat. If the existence of these fireballs can be scientifically proved, we will have the solutions to many of the fantastic flames that have long puzzled man.ll

Occasionally detached masses from the belts above may not be of sufficient intensity to manifest as fire but only as heat. Drifting like great clouds before they dissipate, they may be responsible for certain puzzling weather abnormalities. An example would be the “inferno-like blast” that struck towns in Portugal on July 6, 1949.

This freak heat blast first hit the town of Figueira on the central Portuguese coast, then swept on to Coimbra, thirty miles inland. In both communities the scorching wave lasted only about two minutes and came in the early morning as thousands of women were shopping in the markets. At Figueira, a naval officer reported an unofficial thermometer reading of 158 degrees and said the blast felt like “tongues of fire.” The temperature before and after the blast was around 100 degrees. Earlier, a hurricane had swept across northern Portugal.

Hundreds of persons fell prostrate in the streets; others knelt and prayed. Thousands of chickens and ducks were killed in barnyards. The Mondego River, which empties into the Atlantic at Figueira, dried up at several places, and “at one village millions of fish died in the mud that was rapidly becoming a sand bed.”l2

Four years earlier occurred the baffling fires in the province of Almeria, Spain, localized in and around the town of La Roda. Apparently the blazes began on June 16, 1945, when white clothing spread out on the ground to dry was ignited. During the next twenty days about three hundred fires started without visible cause, burning barns, threshing-bins and cribs, the walls of farm houses, and laundry drying in yards and fields. In practically every instance the objects were white, and the damaged or destroyed buildings were painted white. Some of the peasants were hurt while fighting fires on their farms.

The Spanish government sent scientists to the town. One of them had a box of “instruments” which suddenly burst into flames. They suggested the phenomenon was due to St. Elmo’s fire, or underground mineral deposits. The director of Spain’s National Geographic Institute noted “that the land is a particularly good conductor of electricity.” The rumor spread that radium in the soil was attracting fire from the atmosphere, and the peasants began selling their land at inflated prices.

On July 5, a “great column of whirling wind of a luminous brown color struck a small settlement with a violent roar and kindled flames which leaped thirty feet high.” (See press dispatches of July 9 and 10.) Thereafter only a few minor scattered fires were reported and the phenomenon ended after several days. No fiery masses, however, were seen to fall from above, and the wide extent of the blazes plus the “column of whirling wind” seems to eliminate poltergeist phenomena. The answer to the Almeria riddle lies somewhere in the vast unknown beyond our limited knowledge.

Then there’s the “devil’s fire” of the tropics often spectacular fires that leave no trace of burning. Lieutenant-Commander Richard Kelly tells of observing such a blaze during World War II when he and other military intelligence men landed on Chance Island, off the west coast of Siam. While hunting for Japanese guerrillas they came upon a fire in the dark jungle.

“What happened next still puzzles me,” the officer wrote, “but at the time it stiffened us all with fright. One minute we were creeping through complete darkness and the next we were facing a blazing fire less than 100 yards ahead! We all stopped at the same time. No one dared move or say anything. I knew all the other guys were thinking the same thing — those Japs had led us right into a trap! . . . At about 4 A.M. the fire suddenly disappeared. The next morning we looked around for fire traces but couldn’t find a thing — and to this date we don’t know what it was.”13

Similar fires are seen occasionally on warm nights on Singino and Mpara hills in Tanzania, East Africa, and at several places in the Andes in South America. The theories have ranged from phosphorus in the soil to sun-energy returning from radio-active deposits. Charles Fitzhugh Talman and many other meteorologists believe they are electric brush discharges.

Talman (op. cit.) writes: “Brush discharges of this character at times form a brilliant display. In February 1929, they were so bright on the summit of Pike’s Peak that, from Colorado Springs, 14 miles away, they were mistaken for signals by hikers stranded on the mountain top.”

Other fires of mysterious origin do leave evidence of intense heat. About 8 P.M, on the night of February 7, 1955, the residents of Tucson, Arizona, saw a huge fire dancing in the Santa Catalina Mountains with flames estimated to be thirty to fifty feet in height. The fire burned for eight hours.

On the following morning a search party made up of deputies, air rescue teams, and newsmen located the site of the blaze 3,700 feet up on a ridge. It was an area of approximately eight hundred square yards. Large rocks had been scorched black, but there were no large patches of ashes and no charred remains of large objects. One scorched boulder was found fifteen feet above the others with no evidence of fire between. The fire had even jumped over a patch of dry grass. In places, the rock-strewn area had been scorched to a depth of four inches. Small cactus leaves had been crystallized and some yucca plants were uprooted.

There wasn’t enough tinder around to build a good bonfire, yet the blaze had burned hot and bright for hours. The Air Force sent investigators to photograph the site, but it was announced that no planes were either missing or had dumped fuel. No odor was apparent. Something extremely flammable had burned, but it has never been determined what it was.l4

Among atmospheric mysteries are falls of luminous rain, snow, and hail; skyquakes unrelated to the sonic booms of aircraft and often repeated in localized skies like the Pacific Northwest; the Kelly green “meteors” that plagued the skies over the Baltic in 1948 and the United States Southwest during the early 1950s; and falls of ice, some pieces weighing hundreds of pounds, that could not possibly have been dropped from planes. With the exception of the ice (which has damaged automobiles and roofs), these oddities do not menace life and property, but fire falls and fireballs do!

The term “fireball” covers a large range of fiery phenomena. The fireballs now being considered are not meteors, although as they fall they may be misinterpreted as meteors. In these occurrences no meteoric material is found, and the balls usually do not display the characteristics of a solid object but rather one of tenuous composition.

They are not electro-animals. They present no evidence of even an elementary intelligence. They simply fall, fade away, or expire with an explosion of radiant energy and heat that may be the cause of some of the strange holes or craters that sometimes appear overnight in yards and fields.
They are not balls of lightning, although there may be a relationship. They appear in all kinds of weather and in regions where electrical storms are rare occurrences. Frequently they are actually observed to fall from the atmosphere. And what comes down from up there obviously must have been up there in the first place, even though invisible or undetected.

There is impressive evidence that they have caused plane crashes and marine disasters. Fires of unknown origin have broken out on both aircraft and vessels; and there have been close escapes from “fireballs.”l5

For example, on March 9, 1957, a Pan American World Airways DC-6, en route from New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico, nearly collided in flight with a mysterious luminous object off the Florida coast near Jacksonville. Captain Matthew Van Winkle shot his airliner upwards at almost a ninety-degree angle to avoid the object. A stewardess and woman passenger were hurt and later hospitalized, and three other passengers were shaken up. It was described as a “big fireball advancing with tremendous speed with a roaring sound.”16

Each year throughout the world there are thousands of fires of undetermined origin, many of them starting on high roofs and steeples. Brush, trees, bridges, and roadbeds have been mysteriously set afire. And each year there are strange explosions, some of which cause extensive damage. We shall confine ourselves, however, to instances in which fireballs were actually observed.
There are hundreds of fireball cases in my files that could be classified as descending spheroids of radiant energy, unrelated to electrical storms or meteors. Typical examples follow:

Nine men were burned by a mysterious blaze that fell upon them in an open area from a clear sky, according to Reynold’s News (England), May 29, 1938. They said they saw an object drop which was like “a ball of fire.”

On July 27, 1938, “a blinding ball of blue light” fell on the Bold Colliery, St. Helens, England. An explosion followed. One man was killed, two injured. Two weeks later, a similar ball of bluish light fell on a house in Brook Street, about a mile from the colliery. The house was showered with soot.l7

At Tucumcari, New Mexico, December 13, 1951, “several witnesses reported a fireball plunged to earth beside a round, ground level water tank which towered 30 feet high.” Seconds later the 750,000 gallon tank collapsed, demolishing twenty buildings and killing four persons (see press dispatches, December 14, 1951). Later a scientific team from the University of New Mexico, headed by Dr. Lincoln LaPaz, noted meteor expert, investigated. They were unable to find any meteoric fragments.

On May 10, 1963, Rene Gagne, of Belfast, Maine, was leaving a garage when he noticed a flash in the sky, then the fall of a round, blue object that hit the roof of a warehouse owned by the Maple Upholstery Company. The object exploded with a blast heard by many people, and flames burned through the shingles in an area about forty by twenty-five feet before the blaze was extinguished.

The state fire prevention department conducted an extensive investigation. No bits of metal or meteoric material were found. Weeks later, Joseph A. Flynn, director of fire prevention in the state insurance department, stated that the object that hit the warehouse remained unidentified.l8

A large barn on the farm of Robert Bowen, a retired Boston banker, near Sudbury, Massachusetts, was destroyed by fire on April 28, 1965. Witnesses from several different locations, including a state trooper, said that just before the fire they saw what looked like a “flaming basketball” fall in the vicinity. Fire Chief Albert S. Germain said he didn’t think the fire started from a natural cause since the entire building seemed to blaze up at once. Probers collected rock particles from the ruins, but Harvard geologists said they were field stones of local origin.19

Sometimes literal storms of fireballs afflict communities. A fiery catastrophe struck the town of Parajaevarra, Lapland, according to the Nordiska Dagbladet, July 29, 1938. Fireballs dropped from an overcast sky. One person was cremated, others badly burned, five houses destroyed and others damaged. It couldn’t have been ball lightning as usually defined — there was no storm. Meteors flame out of existence miles above the earth’s surface and very few are large enough to become meteorites. This was true even during the most spectacular display in history on the night of November 13, 1833.

Press dispatches from Rio de Janeiro on September 20, 1956, reported mysterious balls of fire soaring over a rural area in the state of Paraiba, terrifying the populace into flight. Joel Dantas, a government geologist, made an inspection and said the soil there was covered with crystallized ash of unknown origin. “The whole region . . . is bathed in unnatural heat,” he added, “and the air seems filled with the steam of alcohol.”

Ashes, too, along with dust fell with the most astonishing fireball shower in modern times. It happened in Australia in November, 1902, and at a time of atmospheric disturbances. A month earlier vast volumes of smoke at sea began making navigation difficult between the Philippines and Australia and west to the China coast. Origin of the smoke was not known. When it began there were no volcanic eruptions or known forest fires in progress. The air was dry. And in Australia, as in the American midwest of October 1871, there had been a severe drought.

Then, on November 12, a day of abnormal darkness caused by the appearance of a storm of red dust, fireballs fell over all Australia, except Queensland. They started fires in every district in Victoria and throughout New South Wales, falling into cities and towns, setting houses ablaze. At Wycheproof “the whole air seemed on fire.” With the dust, at scattered locations, fell a substance said to be ashes and described as light, fluffy and gray.

This sounds like volcanic phenomena and, strangely, there was almost a simultaneous outbreak of eruptions throughout the world. Just prior to the 12th, Santa Maria, Guatemala, erupted on October 26; Savaii in Samoa on October 30; Colima in Mexico about November 6; and Kilauea in Hawaii on November 10. Following the first Australian fire fall, on or about November 13, eruptions broke out at Stromboli near Sicily, Mt. Chullapata in Peru, and in the Windward Islands, West Indies. But with the exception of Savaii, which is well over two thousand miles from the nearest part of Australia, all of these volcanoes are far from the continent down under.

Other events were taking place. On November 12, a deluge of rain fell in the Malay States. The streets of Singapore were flooded. Bridges were washed away. There was an earthquake in Java. On November 19, a six-foot seismic wave hit the South Australian coast. The smoke in the western Pacific continued until about November 20.

But the fireballs continued to fall in Australia through the dusty haze. On November 13, fireballs exploded over Parramatta and Carcoar. Reports came from around fifty darkened towns. Business was suspended, and in Sydney, where mail coaches were arriving nine hours late, residents stumbled around with lanterns. Houses were destroyed by fireballs in several towns including Boort, Deniliquin, and Chiltern. “Nothing like it before in the history of the colony.” On November 13 the phenomena spread into Queensland, and dust fell in New Zealand.

After the first three days, scattered thunderstorms described as “terrific” began clearing the atmosphere, but fireballs continued to be observed for the next ten days. At Murrumburrah, New South Wales, dust and a large fireball fell on November 18. On the night of November 20, Sir Charles Todd, of the Adelaide Observatory, watched a large fireball moving so slowly that he and other witnesses observed it for four minutes. (Meteors flame out in seconds, and a two-second meteor is considered exceptional.)

A huge fireball shot over Towitta on the night of November 21; and on the following evening several brilliant fireballs passed over the village of Nyngan. The final report seems to have been the explosion o£ a fireball in Ipswich, Queensland, on the 23rd of November.20

We appear to be dealing in these cases with a natural force which is usually invisible, but is called a fireball on the rare occasions when it becomes visible. On some atmospheric level this force may be balanced, but when disturbances occur, spheroids break away and drop down through the aery sea, becoming visible to our severely limited senses as they enter denser mediums. Then they disintegrate with a burst of radiation and heat, although some seem to simply fade out of existence.

There are a number of cases in which aircraft seem to collide with something unseen in the air, instantly exploding and bursting into flames. There are other cases of the simultaneous fall of planes flying close together or in formation.21

There is another, slightly different, theory that is just as plausible. Victor Black, a technical writer for Douglas Aircraft Company, Santa Monica, California, attributes it to “several of the world’s leading aerophysicists at the California Institute of Technology.”

Referring to UFOs, Black says they are “rotating electrical fields of fine particles of cosmic dust speeding through earth’s atmosphere. This electrical rotating field can be compared with the little whirlwinds we see in the street from time to time, which are also composed of electrical particles rotating at high speed; they pick up dust particles and increase in size and speed for several hundred feet, and then suddenly disappear, having spent their energy and failed to encounter other favorable air currents to keep them going.”22

After making this comparison, Black suggests that the earth is constantly passing through such cosmic whirlpools of electromagnetic energy, which are in constant motion in the atmosphere. Occasionally they pick up speed and streak across the sky until their energy is dissipated. They can contain tremendous force — sometimes enough to destroy an airplane.

He also theorizes that these whirlpools are capable of building up a field of charged atoms and developing enough heat to cause a chain reaction. The resulting detonations could explain the mysterious skyquakes, one of which during the summer of 1952 over Seattle, Washington, was felt over a radius of a hundred miles.

There seems little doubt that some UFOs are attracted or affected by electrical fields or radiation. But we must keep in mind that there are probably a number of different types of objects and energies up there. We will require more than one explanation for the mysteries we have reviewed.
There are strange fish in the sea above us. And we are soft, two-legged creatures dwelling on the bottom.


  1. A good account of the Peshtigo tragedy will be found in Disaster edited by Ben Kartman and Leonard Brown, Pellegrini and Cudahy New York, 1948.
  2. History of the Great Conflagration, by James W. Sheahan and George P. Upson, associate editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune, Union Publishing Co., Chicago and Philadelphia, 1872, p. 379.
  3. Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, by Ignatius Donnelly, D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1882 and 1885.
  4. Gem of the Prairie, by Herbert Asbury, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1940, p. 87. Another excellent account of the fire is found in The Tale of Chicago, by Edgar Lee Masters, G. P. Putnam’s Sons New York, 1933.
  5. History of the Great Conflagration, op. cit., p. 163.
  6. Ibid, p. 416.
  7. Ibid, p. 392
  8. Ibid,p. 373.
  9. The New York Times, March 2, 1958.
  10. “Pitfalls and Perils Out There,” by Albert Rosenfeld, Life magazine, October 2, 1964.
  11. That unidentified objects (which could be anything from electro-animals to concentrations of radiant energy) exist at high altitudes seems evident in the following report. During a panel discussion at the Second Annual Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Space held in Seattle, X-15 pilot, Joe Walker, said that films taken during his recent flight to a record height of 246,700 feet showed the presence of five or six objects of undetermined size at some distance from the plane. The objects, apparently disc-shaped, showed up on the film as the X-15 reached the peak of its flight and headed back toward earth. “I don’t feel like speculating about the nature of these objects,” Walker said. “All I know is what appeared on the film in later study.” On the panel with Walker was astronaut John Glenn who previously reported seeing firefly-like objects during each of his three orbits around the earth (A.P. dispatch, May 11, 1962).
  12. U.P. dispatch, July 7, 1949.
  13. Blue Book magazine, March, 1946.
  14. U.P.I. and A. P. dispatches; Arizona Daily Star, February 8, 9 and 10, 1955.
  15. For accounts of aerial and sea disasters associated with mysterious lights, see Chapters 13 and 14 of my earlier book, Invisible Horizons, Chilton Books, Philadelphia and New York, 1965.
  16. I.N.S. dispatch, March 9, 1957.
  17. London News Chronicle, August 10, 1938.
  18. “I See by the Papers,” column by Curtis Fuller, Publisher, Fate, September, 1963.
  19. Ibid, September, 1965.
  20. The Sydney Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Herald and the Otago, (New Zealand) Witness. A detailed study of all the phenomena appears in the British scientific magazine Nature, Vol. 67.
  21. `Invisible Horizons (op. cit.) and “Mystery Death from the Sky,” by Eric Frank Russell, Fate, December, 1950. 22. American Mercury magazine, October, 1952.