The Worst Wild Fires in World History

By: Christopher C. Burt , 5:15 AM GMT on June 17, 2011

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The Worst Wild Fires in World History

The Wallow Fire in Arizona and New Mexico has now become the largest in history for the southwestern United States with over 788 square miles (504,409 acres) charred so far, far surpassing the Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002. It is now probably in the top ten largest single wild fires in U.S history (as of June 18th). I thought this an opportune time to look back and compare the magnitude of the fire with those in the past in both the United States and around the world.

Worst Wild Fires in U.S. History

UPPER MIDWEST

The single worst wild fire in U.S. history, in both size and fatalities, is known as the Great Peshtigo Fire which burned 3.8 million acres (5,938 square miles) and killed at least 1,500 in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the week of October 8-14, 1871. Many sources put the size of the fire at 1.2-1.5 million acres but that included only the area that was completely burned and not the additional 2.3 million acres in surrounding counties that also suffered burn damage (see maps below). Unattended fires at logging camps in the area most likely caused the fire. After a long hot and very dry summer strong warm autumn winds from the southwest fanned the fires out of control. Fire tornadoes were reported at several locations and the fire became so hot that people taking refuge in rivers were boiled to death.





These maps illustrates the extent of the Peshtigo fire of 1871 in Wisconsin and a portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Maps from the ‘Atlas of Wisconsin’.

Numerous other fires also broke out in Michigan at the same time, the worst of which burned an additional 1 million acres (1,562 square miles) in Michigan’s thumb region and in the southwestern portion of the state and killed 200 people mostly in and around Port Huron.



This map shows the locations of all the major fires that broke out in the Upper Midwest during the period of October 8-21, 1871.

Amazingly, the Great Chicago Fire of even greater fame also happened this same week (October 8-10) and remains the worst urban fire in U.S. history with over 300 killed (assuming we treat the deaths in San Francisco in 1906 as earthquake-related). In fact, there is a connection between the wild fires in Wisconsin and Michigan and that in Chicago. An apocryphal story (made up by a newspaper man) blamed the cause of the Chicago fire on a cow knocking a lantern over in a barn. In fact, it is likely the fire was caused by embers from fires burning in the woods west of town being blown by the same strong southwesterly winds (that fanned the flames in Wisconsin) into the city and ignited some of the wooden buildings which were predominate in the city at that time.



An old map of Chicago illustrating the burn area during the fire of October 8-10, 1871. Note how the fire began in the southwestern part of the city and how strong southwesterly winds spread the flames to the northeast and into the heart of the city.

All in all, well over 2,000 people died and close to 5 million acres (7,800 square miles) burned during the weeks of October 8-21, 1871 in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. An intriguing, but most likely apocryphal, theory is that the fires were actually caused by the impact of fragments from Comet Biela that was observed at this time.

It should be noted that all of the deadliest wild fires in American history have occurred in the Upper Midwest. Other notable fires were the Cloquet, Minnesota fire of October 13-15, 1918 that killed as many as 1,000, and the Hinkley, Minnesota fire of September 1, 1894 that killed 400-800.

ROCKY MOUNTAINS

The worst wild fire in western history and the 2nd largest overall in the United States was the Great Fire of 1910. This massive forest fire burned some 3 million acres (4,700 square miles) in Idaho and Montana beginning on August 20-21, 1910. It killed at least 87 people, mostly ill-equipped firefighters, including a single crew of 28 who were overcome by the flames near Setzer Creek outside Avery, Idaho. The worst hit town was Wallace, Idaho, of which one-third was razed.



Wallace, Idaho lies in ruins following the Great Fire of 1910. One-third of the town burned to the ground. Photo source unknown.

The fire was the culmination (as always) of a long dry summer that spawned a number of small fires that were whipped into a single huge conflagration by near hurricane-force winds on August 20th during the passage of a strong cold front. Smoke from the fire was observed as far east as upstate New York.

The 1910 fire was the seminal event that led to a policy of the U.S. Forest Service to prevent and battle all wild fires. This policy remains in force today but is of considerable controversy. The debate reached a head during the summer of 1988 when 800,000 acres (1,250 square miles) of Yellowstone National Park were burned.

CALIFORNIA

California experiences large and destructive wild fires virtually every year, usually in October when the long dry season is coming to an end (normally there is no rainfall in California between May 15-October 15). The worst fires usually occur in the densely populated coastal regions between San Diego and San Francisco which are subject to powerful easterly winds, variously known as Santa Ana (in southern California) and Diablo (in central California). This wind phenomenon is most common during the months of September and October.

The largest single fire in modern California history was the so-called Cedar Fire in San Diego County during October 2003. It burned 280,278 acres (438 square miles), destroyed 2,820 buildings, and killed 15 people.



A satellite image depicts the massive smoke plumes from the Cedar Fire blowing offshore from San Diego County on October 25, 2003.

The deadliest urban wild fire, however, was that which burned into the cities of Oakland and Berkeley on October 20, 1991. Although only about 1,500 acres burned, the fire consumed 3,500 homes and apartment buildings and killed 25. This fire was caused by a Diablo wind event and remains the deadliest and costliest urban wild fire in U.S. history.



A resident of Oakland’s Rockridge District watches in disbelief as his neighbor’s homes burn during the great wild fire of October 20, 1991. Unlike the wild fires in southern California, this fire burned into the heart of an urban area. This was the deadliest and costliest urban wild fire in U.S. history. Photo by Jim Pire.

PACIFIC NORTHWEST

The largest fire on record in the Pacific Northwest was the Syskiyou National Forest Fire of July 12-15, 2002 in Southern Oregon. Some 500,000 acres (781 square miles) burned. Fortunately, there were no casualties or major structural losses since the fire was contained largely to a wilderness area.

NORTHEAST AND CANADA

The largest (and deadliest) wild fire in Canadian history as well as in the northeast of the U.S. was the Miramichi Fire of October 7, 1825. An estimated 3 million acres (4,685 square miles) of forest burned in the Canadian province of New Brunswick and in the U.S. state of Maine. At least 160 people died but the toll may have been much higher since an unknown number of loggers in the area may have perished.

A wild fire in Acadia National Park, Maine during October 25-27, 1947 destroyed much of Bar Harbor, burned 205,678 acres (321 square miles), and killed 16.

Canada’s largest fire in modern history was the Chapleau-Mississagi fire of May and June, 1948 in northeastern Ontario. It burned 691,880 acres (1,081 square miles) and smoke from the fire was dense enough in Texas to cause streetlights to turn on during the daytime in some cities. A smaller but deadlier wild fire, the so-called Porcupine Fire, burned 494,000 acres (772 square miles) in northern Ontario in July 1911. At least 70 people died in several mining camps and communities in the area.



An intense crown fire rages near Chisholm, Alberta in Canada on May 23, 2001. The fire ultimately consumed 286,636 acres and was the largest wild fire in Alberta’s history. Photo from ‘The Atlas of Canada’ courtesy of Government of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

ALASKA

A series of large fires in Alaska during the summer of 2004 burned a combined 5 million acres (7,800 square miles), the most on record for the state although there is plenty of evidence that enormous fires have frequently raged over thousands of square miles in events prior to the modern settlement of the state.

Wild Fires Around the World

AUSTRALIA

Perhaps the largest wild fire in modern world history was that known as The Black Friday Bushfire in Australia’s Victoria State on January 13, 1939. Some 5 million acres burned (7,800 square miles) and 71 died. About 75% of the entire state was affected and 1,100 homes and log mills were destroyed. Ash from the fires fell in New Zealand some 2000 miles to the east.

Australia’s deadliest wild fire, and the nation’s worst natural disaster, was the Black Saturday Fire of February 7-March 14, 2009. A swarm of fires burned 1.1 million acres (1720 square miles) and killed 173, many victims died in their automobiles trying to outrun the flames. 3,500 structures burned across the state of Victoria. The exact cause of the fires (aside from drought, heat, and wind) has never been determined although arson is suspected in several cases.



An emergency vehicle races away from a blaze in the Gippsland region of Victoria State, Australia during the deadly Black Saturday wild fire of February 2009 that claimed some 173 lives. Photo from AP.

RUSSIA

Large fires in Siberia’s taiga forests are fairly common and seem to be on the increase. The worst summer was that of 2003 when on one day in June satellites recorded 157 fires burning 27,181,000 acres (42,470 square miles) simultaneously. The smoke plume from the fires darkened the skies over Osaka, Japan some 3,000 miles away and soot from the fires was recorded in Seattle, Washington. The fires were mostly set (accidently or intentionally) by illegal timber firms who sell cheap lumber to China.

More recently, the wild fires caused by the remarkable heat wave of July and August, 2010 in western Russia engulfed 280,000 acres (437 square miles) around Moscow and killed at least 60 people.

As of this writing wild fires in Siberia are currently burning at least 520,000 acres (812 square miles) in Siberia. The Siberian Governor, Dmitry Mezentsev, has declared a state of emergency as “the situation appears to be increasingly deteriorating.”





The fires in western Russia during the summer of 2010 blanketed Moscow in a thick blanket of smoke. Here is a scene in Red Square on August 6th when the Kremlin (right) and St. Basil’s Cathedral (left) became barely visible. Photo by Mikhail Metzal.

WESTERN EUROPE

The near record dry and warm spring this year has already led to a number of large wild fires in Switzerland and Italy. It is feared that this summer could produce a repeat of the disastrous wild fires of the summer of 2007 when 3,000 fires burned 670,000 acres (1,046 square miles) in Greece, burning down 2,100 structures and killing 84 people. The flames came dangerously close to iconic and historic sites in Athens, and Olympia.

INTENTIONLLY set fires in the AMAZON BASIN and INDONESIA

Enormous swaths of forest have been intentionally set ablaze over the past 30 years in the Amazon Basin and on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan (the Indonesian sector of Borneo). Many millions of acres have been burned to clear land for agriculture and settlement in these regions and dwarf the wild fires I list above that have historically occurred in other places around the world. It is, therefore, hard to call these ‘wild’ fires.

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7. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
5:06 AM GMT on June 26, 2011
Quoting blairtrewin:
For most of the February 2009 fires in south-eastern Australia it's not quite true to say that their exact cause has not been determined (the one main exception was the Marysville fire, which was long suspected of being arson, but it was reported just this morning that police no longer believe this to be the case).

What is true is that there was a wide variety of causes - two are believed to be arson (cases are currently before the courts), several were caused by trees falling on power lines in high winds, one (which had been burning at lower intensity for several days) was caused by lightning, and I think at least one was caused by sparks from machinery. Of course, in those conditions a spark can turn into a huge wildfire very quickly, especially given the lead-up - a week before the fires, Melbourne had three successive days between 43.4 and 45.1 degrees, and even in inner-city parks the grass was crunching underneath one's feet.


Thanks for this clarification of the facts of origin of the fires, Blair!
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 300 Comments: 280
6. blairtrewin
12:17 AM GMT on June 25, 2011
For most of the February 2009 fires in south-eastern Australia it's not quite true to say that their exact cause has not been determined (the one main exception was the Marysville fire, which was long suspected of being arson, but it was reported just this morning that police no longer believe this to be the case).

What is true is that there was a wide variety of causes - two are believed to be arson (cases are currently before the courts), several were caused by trees falling on power lines in high winds, one (which had been burning at lower intensity for several days) was caused by lightning, and I think at least one was caused by sparks from machinery. Of course, in those conditions a spark can turn into a huge wildfire very quickly, especially given the lead-up - a week before the fires, Melbourne had three successive days between 43.4 and 45.1 degrees, and even in inner-city parks the grass was crunching underneath one's feet.
Member Since: October 25, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 35
5. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
6:10 PM GMT on June 21, 2011
Quoting biff4ugo:
Wonderful timely post.

If the Chicago fire killed more people and likely burned at least as many homes, how is the 1991 Oakland fire the costliest/deadliest urban fire in history? Is that without time adjusting dollar damage estimates?


The Chicago fire has always been considered an urban fire since it began in the city (although the source of the fire is unknown). It is just speculation that perhaps embers from fires outside of the city were blown into town and started it.

The Oakland fire began as a wild fire in shrub land in the hills above the city and then burned into town, hence it is considered a 'wild fire'.
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 300 Comments: 280
4. biff4ugo
12:14 PM GMT on June 21, 2011
Wonderful timely post.

If the Chicago fire killed more people and likely burned at least as many homes, how is the 1991 Oakland fire the costliest/deadliest urban fire in history? Is that without time adjusting dollar damage estimates?
Member Since: December 28, 2006 Posts: 114 Comments: 1570
3. 1900hurricane
4:23 AM GMT on June 21, 2011
Thanks for the always awesome blog! Here in Texas, we're burning up right now from wildfires. Hopefully we'll get some rain soon so we won't get one that warrants a place on your list. Which got me thinking: Has Texas ever had a huge wildfire like some of these? I know the potential is definitely there, but has a huge or particularly devastating one occurred in Texas? I can't seem to recall one off the top of my head.
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 46 Comments: 11667
2. Neapolitan
7:24 PM GMT on June 17, 2011
Another awesome and informative post, Chris. As usual.

I once dated a girl who grew up in Oconto, Wisconsin, and whose family had been there for generations. I first heard about the Peshtigo Fire from her, and have been interested ever since, mostly due to the ungodly size of the thing.

Too, I remember first hearing about the Oakland firestorm while watching an NFL game; the blimp often panned to the east to show the fire's growth.

Again, great post. Thank you for writing it.
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13537
1. AdamNC
3:35 PM GMT on June 17, 2011
The Acadia National Park fire is of personal interest to me. My grandfather worked for Western Union and was one of the last to leave the island. He was sending messages requesting help up until they forced him to to leave. Very little is written about that fire.

Member Since: May 28, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 4

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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.