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Published December 11, 2020

On the 8th of October, 1871, a huge fire wrought devastation in the Great Lakes area of America; but this story has nothing to do with Mrs O’Leary’s cow.

While the great Fire of Chicago claimed the headlines of history, it was not the only conflagration that day. A couple of hundred miles away, an even more devastating fire was burning.

In 1871, the Northwest Territory was still largely wild; the untamed forests, and rich resources found within them, promised great rewards for anyone willing to put in some hard work. 

Reverend Peter Pernin described it as:

“A country covered with dense forests, in the midst of which are to be met with here and there, along newly opened roads, clearings of more or less extent, sometimes a half league in width to afford space for an infant town, or perhaps three or four acres intended for a farm. With the exception of these isolated spots where the trees have been cut down and burned, all is a wild but majestic forest. Trees, trees everywhere, nothing else but trees as far as you can travel from the bay, either towards the north or west. These immense forests are bounded on the east by Green Bay of Lake Michigan, and by the lake itself. The face of the country is in general undulating, diversified by valleys overgrown with cedars and spruce trees, sandy hills covered with evergreens, and large tracts of rich land filled with the different varieties of hard wood, oak, maple, beech, ash, elm, and birch. The climate of this region is generally uniform and favorable to the crops that are now tried there with remarkable success. Rains are frequent, and they generally fall at a favorable time.”

Chicago at the time had a modest population of just 324,000 compared to 2.7 million today; Green Bay had less than five thousand residents and Peshtigo, Wisconsin was a humble village of around 1,200 people.

Many were immigrants; they had come from France, Belgium, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and other countries, all in search of a new life. It wasn’t easy. Many came with little more than the clothes on their back, but they were able to clear a little space in the forest, build a cabin, lay out some fields and start a farm, or work on the many lumber camps now springing up. Some men came alone, working through the hardest part before sending for their wives; others struggled together, as families, and gradually communities grew.

Peshtigo began in 1836, when David Jones built a small sawmill; in the following years he laid out streets and offered lots for sale. By 1870, it was one of three principal towns in Oconto County, about half the size of Oconto itself.

Reverend Pernin served the Catholic community there and in nearby Marinette; in October 1871, he lived close to the church in Peshtigo, which was almost finished. He planned, however, to move to the larger Marinette, where a church already stood, a presbytery had just been built and a parish schoolhouse was under construction.

Those plans were to be horribly disrupted.

Source: Picryl

That summer had been exceptionally dry; drought had been a problem throughout the midwest, and the forests were parched. In fact, there had already been several forest fires, some big enough to make the news, and many towns and villages had taken extra precautions, such as setting out large barrels of water at strategic places for use in firefighting. 

On Saturday, the 7th of October 1871, an article in the Wisconsin State Journal described the conditions:

“The pall of smoke with a strong odor of pine, which hangs over all this region, obscures the sun, often limits your vision to a block’s distance, reddens and waters the eyes, and makes one feel gloomy and miserable, is an ever present reminder of a disaster of unprecedented extent and severity, from which the northwestern part of the State is suffering. Such a drouth [sic], with hardly any rain since July, has never been known. Marshes where the water is usually a foot or two deep, are dry now as far beneath the soil, and peat and decayed vegetation is dry as tinder. A locomotive cinder, the embers of a surveyor’s camp, a spark from a hunter’s gun, are sufficient to set such regions in a blaze.”

The Reverend Pernin and many of his neighbours were strongly affected by this atmosphere; he later wrote, “There seemed to be a vague fear of some impending though unknown evil haunting the minds of many, nor was I myself entirely free from this unusual feeling.”

That Sunday he wasn’t meant to be in Peshtigo, as the church was about to be plastered and he couldn’t hold a service there. He had meant to go to Cedar River, but the steamer hadn’t stopped in Peshtigo as usual, so he remained at home. Because of this, he had no service to hold, and was at leisure. He visited an elderly widow, and while walking on her land saw things that did not put either of them at ease. 

“The wind rose suddenly with more strength than it had yet displayed and I perceived some old trunks of trees blaze out though without seeing about them any tokens of cinder or spark, just as if the wind had been a breath of fire, capable of kindling them into a flame by its mere contact. We extinguished these; the wind fell again, and nature resumed her moody and mysterious silence…On looking towards the west, whence the wind had persistently blown for hours past, I perceived above the dense cloud of smoke over-hanging the earth, a vivid red reflection of immense extent, and then suddenly struck on my ear, strangely audible in the preternatural silence reigning around, a distant roaring, yet muffled sound, announcing that the elements were in commotion somewhere.”

Source: Unsplash

He went home to prepare; he let his horse out of the stable, thinking the animal would stand a better chance free, and set about protecting his possessions. He dug a trench in his garden, into which he deposited his books and other valuables. The sky grew redder, and the distant roar became more distinct as it drew closer; he described it as, “the confused noise of a number of cars and locomotives approaching a railroad station, or the rumbling of thunder, with the difference that it never ceased, but deepened in intensity each moment more and more.”

Befitting his duty as a priest, he went to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament; fumbling with the key to the tabernacle, he decided to take the whole thing with him, drawing it in a wagon and hoping to meet somebody who would help him with it.

“I re-entered to seek the chalice which had not been placed in the tabernacle, when a strange and startling phenomenon met my view. It was that of a cloud of sparks that blazed up here and there with a sharp detonating sound like that of powder exploding, and flew from room to room. I understood then that the air was saturated with some special gas, and I could not help thinking if this gas lighted up from mere contact with the breath of hot wind, what would it be when fire would come in actual contact with it.”

Now out of time, he was unable to free his pet jay bird from its cage, or persuade his dog to come out from hiding under the bed. He left them behind and headed towards the river. It was only a five or six minute walk away.

“I had delayed my departure too long. It would be impossible to describe the trouble I had to keep my feet, to breathe, to retain hold of the buggy which the wind strove to tear from my grasp, or to keep the tabernacle in its place. To reach the river, even unencumbered by any charge, was more than many succeeded in doing; several failed, perishing in the attempt. How I arrived at it is even to this day a mystery to myself. The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke, and fire. It was almost impossible to keep one’s eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road, or to recognize people, though the way was crowded with pedestrians, as well as vehicles crossing and crashing against each other in the general flight. Some were hastening towards the river, others from it, whilst all were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant deafening noises rose on the air together. The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house—all sounds were there save that of the human voice. People seemed stricken dumb by terror.”

He was frequently thrown to the ground by the tumult, at one point finding himself next to a woman and child, both already dead. He struggled on to the river:

“We saw that the houses adjacent to it were on fire, whilst the wind blew the flames and cinders directly into the water. The place was no longer safe. I resolved then to cross to the other side though the bridge was already on fire.”

Source: Unsplash

As Pernin and the crowd with him crossed one way, many others were crossing the other way; all hoping that safety lay ahead of them. Pernin had a destination in mind, a spot lower on the river where the water was shallower, but soon realised he couldn’t get there. The road he would need to take lay between the sawmill and a three-storey store which sold wooden wares; both were ablaze, and the flames met across the road.

“None could traverse this fiery passage without meeting with instant death.”

He instead went up the river; once he judged himself far enough from the bridge – which seemed bound to collapse – he pushed the wagon containing the tabernacle into the water.

“The banks of the river as far as the eye could reach were covered with people standing there, motionless as statues, some with eyes staring, upturned towards heaven, and tongues protruded. The greater number seemed to have no idea of taking any steps to procure their safety, imagining, as many afterwards acknowledged to me, that the end of the world had arrived and that here was nothing for them but silent submission to their fate.”

He pushed those on either side of him into the water; one pulled back protesting that they were now wet, but the reverend pulled them further into the river. Around them, others followed suit.

“It was time; the air was no longer fit for inhalation, whilst the intensity of the heat was increasing. A few minutes more and no living thing could have resisted its fiery breath… Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would, at least be safe from fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands that we kept the flames at bay.”

Clothing and quilts which had fallen into the water were soaked and thrown over people’s heads, but offered no lasting protection – they quickly dried off, and caught fire if not constantly wetted. 

“I saw nothing but flames; houses, trees, and the air itself were on fire. Above my head, as far as the eye could reach into space, alas! too brilliantly lighted, I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament.”

The fire burned everything in its way at a tremendous pace. Pernin noted that when he went into the river, at around ten o’clock, the fire at the wooden-wares store was just taking hold.

“The work of destruction was speedy, for, in less than a quarter of an hour, the large beams were lying blazing on the ground, while the rest of the building was either burned or swept off into space.”

The river was crowded by people and animals, and many were pushed or washed under by the frantic attempts of others to survive. Pernin saw one woman swept off a log by a passing cow, and thought she would drown, but she grabbed the cow by its horns and was dragged away by it – he would later learn, to safety.

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly Gazette. Believed to be public domain.

Some people were beyond panic stricken by the fire; Pernin wrote of a woman who realised with horror that the bundle she carried no longer held her child. He tried to persuade her that someone else might have found and saved the baby, but she was distraught. He was told later that she had thrown herself into the river to drown.

It didn’t take long for the next danger to present itself. It was October in Wisconsin, and however hot the fire burned, the river still ran cold. Pernin noted that people near him were shivering, “their teeth were chattering and their limbs convulsively trembling”, but it would still be some time before they could emerge without catching fire. In all, Pernin was in the water for five and a half hours. 

“The atmosphere, previously hot as the breath of a furnace, was gradually becoming colder and colder… My clothes were thoroughly saturated… and their searching dampness penetrated to my inmost frame, affecting my very lungs. Though close to a large fire… I was still convulsively shivering.”

On leaving the river, he found that the soil held enough warmth to help a little, and of course there were plenty of fires burning by which to dry clothes. Modesty was abandoned in favour of survival by many. It was perhaps made easier by the fact that Pernin, and many others, had sustained injuries to their eyes, and by now were struggling to see. He was led to a little valley by the rivers edge – the very place he had planned to escape to, but had been unable to reach – where survivors were now gathering. There, although unable to see and barely able to speak, he attempted to comfort a dying woman who had been afraid to enter the river, and as a result had been “fearfully burned” as she crouched on its banks.

Soon news reached the survivors of how much devastation the fire had wrought across Peshtigo. The Reverend tried to remain cheerful; they could go to Marinette, where the church, presbytery and schoolhouse would provide shelter. But no; soon after word came from Marinette. Although none had died there, all the buildings from the church down to the bay – including the presbytery and schoolhouse – had been destroyed. In the space of a few hours, Pernin had lost everything but his faith.

The recurring refrain in newspaper reports from the days and weeks following would be that, “No tongue can tell, no pen can describe, no brush can depict the realities of that night.” 

However, Pernin’s account, and other stories from survivors and witnesses of the aftermath, give us a glimpse into that horror. 

The earliest reports were often understated; the Janesville Daily Gazette, on the 10th of October, reported that, “Peshtigo was entirely burned… together with 60 or 70 people.”

The Wisconsin State Journal, on the 11th, set the number at “80 or 100”, while the Janesville Daily Gazette now said, “It is impossible to form any correct estimate of the loss of life.”

The reason for this is simple; the fire had cut the affected communities off, bringing down telegram lines and bridges, and blocking roads with debris. News of the disaster travelled only as quickly as the survivors; steamer ships on the Lake, delayed by smoke and winds, brought the first accounts. 

The number of dead in Peshtigo would eventually be set at around 800 – by itself more than double the number lost in Chicago’s great fire the same night – but the village was far from the only victim of the blaze. It spread to some 1.5 million acres, spreading nearly as far south as Green Bay itself, and north into Michigan. The counties of Oconto, Marinette, Door and Kewaunee were worst hit, and the dead totalled somewhere between 1,200 and 2,400. 

Approximate extent of the fire. Although the Door and Kewaunee fire was separated by the lake, it is generally included as part of the same conflagration.

The difficulty in accounting for the dead lay in the fact that whole families, and even whole communities, had been burned, leaving no-one to give their names. Because they were often immigrants, from varying nations, communication issues would also have played a part, as did the itinerant nature of the region’s labourers. Town records were also reported to have been burned in several places.

It was not even possible to come to a true number by counting the bodies; according to newspaper reports, “Some of the bodies were so thoroughly burned and consumed that they could be scooped up and held in the double hands.”

It was not until the 21st of October – nearly two weeks after the fire – that full reports appeared in newspapers like the Green Bay Weekly Gazette and the Wisconsin State Register. They included accounts of the fire in other areas, such as the Door peninsula.

“A terrific tornado swept down from the southwest, rushing through the western side of the county, carrying death and destruction in its awful career. Beginning at the Belgian settlement in Brussels, it swept through the towns of Union, Gardner, the western part of Forestville, Nasewaupee, the western part of Sevastopol and down the east shore of the Bay. Almost every building in its path was burned. At Williamson’s shingle mill on the Central road everything was burned and a most awful destruction of human life ensued. Out of about eighty persons who lived at the mill, fifty-seven died either by burning or suffocation. The few survivors who escaped were badly burned and tell a most horrible tale of the scene at this tremendous holocaust.”

After Peshtigo, Williamson’s Mill was frequently cited as one of the worst scenes of calamity. 

“In a potatoe [sic] patch in the center of the clearing 45 bodies were found in one heap, the balance being scattered in different parts of the clearing two of them in a well. The bodies were all buried there. Many of them were disfigured in a terrible manner, arms and legs being gone in some cases and most of the bodies burned beyond recognition. The barn boss, Thomas Bush, who escaped uninjured says he was on top of the barn when the hurricane came down; there seemed to be a perfect cloud of flame which waved over the tops of the trees and when it reached the cleared spot where the mill stood, descended upon the terror stricken mass of people. He descended from the barn, mounted a poney [sic] and galloped through the flame to a patch of hardwood timber. Before going he tried to get others to follow but amid the terrible roar of wind and flames, he found it impossible, except in the case of one man who followed him and also escaped uninjured. He says that as the flames descended they seemed to strike at the people and as each wave of fire swept over the scene, persons would drop. It was all over in fifteen minutes. He went back to the clearing in half an hour after the commencement of the fire (as soon as he could reach it) and brought water to those who were still alive and suffering the keenest tortures from the terrible burning they had received. The escape of Mrs Williamson seemed almost miraculous. She was seated on a stone about a rod [approx. 5m or 16.5 ft] from the large pile of bodies, enveloped in a wet blanket, and was found there by Mr Bush upon his return.”

Burnt lumber which survived the fire, displayed at the Peshtigo Fire Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The area known as the Sugar Bush was also hard hit. The Green Bay Weekly Gazette carried an extensive description of the aftermath.

“Wherever the tempest had struck a hill it had burned up every vestige of grass and fallen leaves and undergrowth, and the hill was as hard and bare and as smooth as a cellar floor… Soon we came upon mournful evidences of the general destruction. First we would meet the burnt carcasses of horses and then a little distance on the broken and burned remains of wagons by the roadside. In several such cases little white specks upon the ground, resembling broken and pulverized oyster shells, were shown us as all that remained of a human being. They had evidently sought to escape with the help of their teams but the fire had overtaken them and they perished miserably.”

In some places, there was painful evidence of the desperation felt by those caught in the firestorm.

“The remains of a family was found consisting of the mother and two children burned to death, while near by the father was lying with two twin children by his side, their throats all cut from ear to ear. In his despair he had taken their lives, and then his own. He was found lying upon his back, his arms crossed upon his breast, and a jack-knife between his throat and his hands. In another case a boy of 18 had cut his throat, resolved not to endure the agony of burning, or to survive his mother and sister, who had probably already perished before him.”

And another:

“One young man picked up the two children of his employer, and with one under each arm endeavoured to wade through the fire and thus save their lives. After carrying them several rods, he found them scorched to death in his arms. Their mother had fallen down dead. This so disheartened the young man that he drew his knife and stabbed himself, inflicting a ghastly wound.”

The death toll in the Sugar Bush was then given as 73 in the upper bush, 52 in the middle, and 140 in the lower bush – however, they also gave the number of dead in Peshtigo as only 60, so these numbers are likely very low.

Those who survived had traumatic tales to tell. One report came from the town of Brussels:

“One family only, and one single man of the seven families escaped with life, and they were nearly suffocated by the heat and smoke. They at one time gave up all hope of escape and lay down to die, but remembering the well, they got in that as a last hope. Here they remained until morning, putting out the sparks with clay from the side of the well, to prevent their clothing from catching fire – when they made their way to a neighbor’s.”

However, wells would not always be a safe haven; a report of one family surviving in this way was followed in the same breath by that of another family, taking the same action, who suffocated together.

The people of Marinette told a rare story of survival. 

“Mr Brown had given orders that at the first alarm of fire the mill should “start up and set the pumps a going.” In fifteen minutes after the alarm was given the pumps were working beautifully, and fifty teams were hauling water to the front, where Brown and his whole crew of 150 or 200 men were bravely battling with Fire and Death. By their heroic exertions, and indomitable energy the town was saved, and they were alive to tell of the escape. It was a long and awful struggle. A great gale of flame, a wrathful tempest of fire came roaring up from the southwest and enveloped Menekaune in destruction. It turned then to the westward, and that the same fate would have befallen Marinette but for the thoughtful provision that was made, and the pluck and determination of those who beat back the fiery destroyer no one acquainted with the facts can deny. As “A.C.” said, “God was merciful and we helped ourselves!””

And there were stories of heroism and generosity. 

“A little girl twelve years old, who saved her sister from death, but who was advised by many to desist from the attempt lest she herself should perish. She heeded them not, however, but by the most heroic efforts she succeeded in rescuing her little sister from the merciless flames. Her father, mother, brothers and sisters perished in the devouring elements. And after the fire had abated somewhat, she worked her way back over hot ashes and burning coals, and dragged the dead bodies of her relatives out into an open space, and then stood watching their charred remains all day and through that long and desolate night that followed. 

A Norwegian boy with aged and infirm parents carried his mother on his back to the river, then went back for his father. Although both were badly burned, they were recovering in hospital with their son still by their side. 

A man who had lost everything – including all his clothes – in the fire was supplied with a single pair of drawers. As he made his way to safety he came across a teenage girl, the sole survivor of her family, who had similarly been stripped by the flames. He gave her those drawers, and went naked to get help for her. Both were reported to be recovering.

A notable survivor from the Peshtigo area was Mr. Abram Place, who had been able to fireproof his farm thanks in part to the size of the clearing it stood in; he and his wife sheltered many of the survivors.

And, as soon as the news reached parts unaffected, they banded together to give aid to their neighbours.

“Monday morning a car came from La Crosse, containing winter stores of every description; in the afternoon another arrived containing 100 barrels of flour, donated by General Washburn, and the delegate who accompanied these supplies stated this was but the commencement of La Crosse’s generosity – more would be forthcoming as long as the demand continued. Monroe sent a car load, on Tuesday, and a quantity more the following day. Mr Booth, who came with the articles, informed us that, last Tuesday, 150 ladies of Monroe got together, and, with the aid of 10 sewing machines, got up an indefinite lot of women’s and children’s garments, comforters, quilts, etc – all made from new material. One brave little town in the southern part of the state, containing but one store, sent nearly a car load of supplies.”

When news first reached Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, the Governor was not present – he had gone to Chicago, taking aid to survivors of the fire there. Instead, the governor’s wife, Mrs Frances Bull Fairchild, received the telegram. She immediately gave orders for a boxcar full of supplies intended for Chicago to be diverted, given priority and sent north. When she learned that the boxcar in question didn’t have any blankets – desperately needed to ward off the October cold – she organised the women of Madison to provide them, and then issued a public appeal for supplies which was so successful another boxcar full was able to leave that night.

The causes of this tragedy are at once obvious and obscure. The forest was as dry as tinder, and ready to burn at the slightest spark; however where the sparks that actually began the blaze came from will never be known.

There are many possibilities; a spark from a gun, an ember from a passing locomotive or unattended fire, or even a comet or meteorite!

Source: Unsplash

The meteorite theory was first put forward in 1883; the fact that the Great Fire of Chicago, the Peshtigo wildfire, and other wildfires further north in Michigan had all occurred on the same night was said to be no coincidence. All these blazes were attributed to fragments of Biela’s Comet, last seen when it broke up in 1852. However, it should also be noted that the main proponent of this theory was Ignatius L. Donnelly, a Congressman who also put forward theories connecting the story of Atlantis to the Biblical Flood, and in turn to another catastrophic comet impact and the extinction of the mammoth, as well as arguing that Shakespeare’s works were in fact written by Sir Francis Bacon, and contained secret codes revealing this. It has been said that “most of what Donnelly said was highly questionable or downright wrong.”

Modern scientists give the theory little credibility; although meteorites do frequently make it into Earth’s atmosphere, most burn up long before they reach the ground. Those large enough to make an impact retain little heat, and have even been found lying on unmelted snow and ice. 

And, let’s face it, it remains far more likely that, in the prevailing dry conditions, a series of small accidents caused a number of fires to start across the region – as had been occurring frequently in the preceding months.

What made the difference on this particular night was the weather; from the scant observations available, it appears that a strong low pressure system was lying over the central plains, producing strong southwesterly winds. These winds caught and carried the fires until they joined up. This would also explain why, in Peshtigo, there were people going both ways across the bridge trying to escape – fires had started on both sides.

The violence of the fire is no surprise to anyone who has witnessed a large wildfire. Past a certain size, fires can generate their own wind, setting off fire whirls or fire tornadoes, and sending embers as far as 20km (12 miles) away to start new fires. In forests, wildfires can spread as fast as 10.8 kilometres per hour (6.7 mph), and the heat actually precedes the flames, making it possible for fuel, in particularly dry circumstances like those of 1871, to spontaneously ignite. An average forest fire might create temperatures up to 800°C (1,472° F), and extreme conditions can make that as high as 1200°C (2,192° F). For comparison, a cremation furnace burns at between 1000 and 1300°C. Based on newspaper reports of bodies burned to ashes, it’s safe to assume that the Peshtigo fire was one of those extreme cases.

Although there’s no doubt that some were dissuaded by the fire, and moved away to live somewhere they deemed safer, many stayed to rebuild. By mid-December, it was reported that sixty new buildings had been put up at Peshtigo.

A particularly poetic writer at the Green Bay Weekly Gazette wrote:

“Nature is the great Restorer. She shall clothe these blasted fields in garments of purity, and hide the hideous scars under her mantle of snow, and in the spring-time bring forth flowers, and start again the ceaseless rounds of life. The fields shall be decked with green, the song of birds shall be trilled in her woods, and the low of cattle be heard on her hills, and the sound of ax and hammer, and the voices of busy men fill their now voiceless solitudes.”

Source: Unsplash

However, they perhaps returned with a little more respect for the forest fire; took a little more care when clearing land, paid more attention to the embers of their campfires. In the years and decades that followed, wildfire prevention campaigns like the one featuring Smokey Bear were launched to encourage more responsible behaviour.

But the fact is, wildfires cannot be avoided; even if we could all be universally careful not to let any spark stray from a campfire, a cigarette, or a gender reveal party, there would still be natural causes like lightning, although these only account for perhaps as few as one in five. They remain a risk that must be accepted, mitigated where possible, and prepared for by those who choose to live in landscapes which are liable to burn. They must be ready to fight fires on their doorstep – and for the potential losses which follow if they fail.

Improved technology today makes it easier for firefighters to get to, and tackle, wildfires, although it remains a highly dangerous business, and a strong focus remains on prevention of man-made fires. Ironically, one of the best ways to prevent wildfires is with fire; planned burns are today frequently used to reduce the risk of fire by removing the fuel from the environment in a controlled manner. Improved weather forecasting also helps us to predict the behaviour of fires, allowing those intentional fires to be planned more safely, and directing firefighters to the areas best suited for intervention. 

In this way, it is hoped that a wildfire on the scale of Peshtigo will never happen again.


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Sources, References and Further Reading

Contemporary map of the burnt area – Archive.org

Contemporary newspaper account – Archive.org

The Great Midwest Fires of 1871 – National Weather Service

Mrs Lucius Fairchild – Wisconsin Electronic Reader

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