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The Worst Wild Fires in U.S. History

By: Christopher C. Burt, 7:08 PM GMT on August 27, 2013

The Worst Wild Fires in U.S. History

The California Rim fire has now expanded to 192,466 acres (as of 7 a.m. PT, August 29th) making it the largest wild fire on record to affect California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. It ranks, however, as only the 6th largest fire in California history (so far) since most of the state’s largest wild fires occur in the coastal regions of southern and central California during the end of the dry season. To put this fire in perspective here is a brief review of the largest (and deadliest) wild fires in U.S. history.



The Rim fire underwent explosive growth on August 24-25 when this photo was taken in the Sierra foothills. Photo by Justin Sullivan.

Worst Wild Fires in U.S. History

CALIFORNIA

California experiences large and destructive wild fires virtually every year, with the worst usually occurring 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 most destructive fires (so far as impact on human habitation) normally 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 273,246 acres (430 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.

Here a list of California’s top 10 wild fires (in terms of acreage consumed) including the fire name, cause, date, most affected county or region, and acreage burned.

1. CEDAR (HUMAN)
October 2003
San Diego County
273,246

2. RUSH (LIGHTNING)
August 2012
Lassen County
271,911

3. ZACA (HUMAN)
July 2007
Santa Barbara County
240,207

4. MATILIJA (UNDETERMINED)
September 1932
Ventura County
220,000

5. WITCH (POWERLINES)
October 2007
San Diego County
197,990

6. RIM (UNDER INVESTIGATION)
August 2013
Tuolumne County
192,466 (as of 7:30 a.m. Tuesday August 29)

7. KLAMATH THEATER COMPLEX (LIGHTNING)
June 2008
Siskiyou County
192,038

8. MARBLE CONE (LIGHTNING)
July 1977
Monterey Region
177,866

9. LAGUNA (POWERLINES)
September 1970
San Diego County
175,425

10. BASIN COMPLEX (LIGHTNING)
June 2008
Monterey Region
162,818

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 (depending upon how one classifies the Chicago fire of 1871).



A resident of Oakland’s Rockridge District watches 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 2nd deadliest and costliest urban wild fire in U.S. history (if one considers the Chicago fire of 1871 to be a ‘wild fire’—more below about this). Photo by Jim Pire. This photo is a still shot from one of the most amazing natural disaster videos ever shot (by Jim Pire). It can be viewed in its entirety here. This is the first time that this extraordinary video has been published in full and unedited (about 60 minutes long, but worth the effort!).

The Rim Fire

The cause of this ongoing wild fire event has yet to be determined but its unusual size and intensity is a result of the extreme lack of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada and the state as a whole since January 1st. It has been the driest January-August period on record. For instance, San Francisco has measured only 3.54” of precipitation since January 1st (normal for this period should be 14.50”). With complete precipitation records for the city going back to October 1849, this is quite a remarkable accomplishment. For the entire state of California the January-August precipitation total has averaged just 4.58”, far below the previous record of 6.27” set in 1898. An excellent article on how drought has amplified wildfires in the West may be read in this recently posted article by Climate Central. It includes many interesting graphics and links.



A series of nighttime satellite images show how the Rim fire has spread into Yosemite National Park over the past four days. The lights of Reno can be seen to the north of the fire zone. NASA Earth Observatory.

Below is a compilation of the worst wild fires in U.S. history adopted from a blog I posted in June 2011.

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 worst 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.

PACIFIC NORTHWEST

The largest fire on record in the Pacific Northwest was the Siskiyou 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.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

Extreme Weather Fire

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

Very informative blog post. Thanks Christopher!
Of the 10 largest Calf. fires on your list, 7 have occurred in the last 10 years.
The Big Burn, by Timothy Egan does a good job of documenting the Great Fire of 1910.
While you were on vacation -
A Song of Flood and Fire: One Million Square Kilometers of Burning Siberia Doused by Immense Deluge

Link

Russia's Far East braces for peak of floods, builds 9-meter-high dams

Link

Besieged city of Khabarovsk faces another ten days before reaching the peak of flooding nightmare

Link

Worst China floods for more than a century

Link
This event needs your attention, reports at first said the area in Russia was 2,000 X 500 kilometers.
Have to take into consideration that we are now much more capable of containing wildfires than we used to be. Obviously most houses are no longer made out of wood etc...
Thanks for the very informative post Chris..
Just out of curiosity I wonder where the largest wildfire in the world on record is..
Thanks much Chris for the post, hopefully we won't lose all of Yosemite.

How used to wildfires are the plants in the Sierra Nevada? "Used to" is the wrong phrase, do the plants use the fires to any advantage up there?
Hi blog readers,

One thing from this latest blog YOU DON'T WANT TO MISS is Jim Pire's amazing Oakland fire video of 1991 (never before published unedited). Please grab a beer or glass of wine, sit down in a dark room, blow the video up to full screen, and give yourself 20 minutes of uninterupted time to watch this. Do not try to 'fast-forward', just be patient and watch the drama unfold and build to quite a climax.

Here is the Vimeo link:

http://vimeo.com/73238596

It is amazing.

Several fire departments now use portions of this video for training purposes.

Chris
Thanks Mr. Burt I'm starting to watch now!
I put a blurb on Dr. M's blog for that video. It is pretty amazing. One thing that struck me is how calm the guy is. Not some yahoo that goes bleep, bleep, bleep over hail stones in his swimming pool.
weatherhistorian has created a new entry.
FWIW, the Rim Fire is now up to 213,414 acres (333 square miles). At 35% containment, it should shoot past the 1932 Matilija fire tomorrow to take sole possession of fourth place on the list of largest California fires ever.

The first-, second-, and third-place fires are as follows:

3) Zaca (2007): 240,207 acres
2) Rush (2012): 271,911
1) Cedar (2003): 273,246

Speculating here, third place seems almost a given at this point in time, and with the weather expected to turn drier again next week (though, thankfully, cooler), even second and first aren't out of the question.