Although some of the more commonly thought of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, can wipe out billions of dollars in property and take many lives, wildfires can also cause similar damage. Much like hurricanes, wildfires do have their season but have been known to crop up at many different times during the year. With more left to be learned about them, wildfires happened long before man occupied the world. All the uncertainty surrounding them can lead one to wonder with all the technology available to predict and fight fires, have they gotten better, or has a new breed of careless man from the guy who just dumps water on a campfire to the guy looking to collect insurance money just made things worse?
To judge for yourself, we have gathered the top 25 wildfires of all time below. They range from the local to the international, from the recent to the historical, and have numerous causes. Dry conditions, wind, and even the human intervention all make the list, which is ordered mostly by number of people thought to have been killed.
Top National Wildfires of All Time
- The Great Peshtigo Fire – In 1871, the worst recorded forest fire in North American history raged through Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Known as The Great Peshtigo Fire, it destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of property and took between 1,200 and 2,400 lives. Ironically enough, it also took place at the same as another famous fire in Chicago found further down the list.
- Cloquet FireIn 1918, Americans were being killed in World War I in addition to a deadly Spanish flu epidemic. However in the same year, wildfires in the forests of Minnesota killed 453 and seriously burned 85 others. Ten towns were completely destroyed. The fire was deemed the fault of railroad due to sparks caused by trains.
- The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 – This fire tore through the town of Hinckley, Minnesota after a dry summer season. The fire might best be remembered for the heroic acts of the train engineers which were ferreting away survivors as fast as the trains could take them. When it was over, an estimated 418 were dead in an area of about 1,400.
- The Great Miramichi Fire – This wildfire is perhaps best remembered for its survivors taking shelter by standing in the nearby river. Even livestock stood with them, and a baby was rumored to have been born there. It took place in 1825 in New Brunswick. The death toll for this fire is thought to be at least 200 killed in both the U.S. and Canada.
- The Big Burn – Occurring in Idaho and Montana, this wildfire happened in 1910. It tore through 3 million acres of wildfire and was said to have sent great balls of fire down the mountainsides. The fire claimed 85 lives and set off a debate on forest fires. Popular Mechanics has more on the blaze.
- Port Huron Fire – In the second of three famous wildfires to happen in 1871, this one also struck in Michigan in a different part than the Peshtigo Fire. The cities of Port Huron and White Rock burned along with 1.2 million acres. An estimated minimum of 50 people were suspected to have perished.
- Oakland Wildfire – Think huge fires only happened in the time of our grandparents? Then read more about these 1991 fires that took place in Oakland, California. It destroyed over 3,000 homes, cost over billion dollars, and killed 25 people, with another 150 injured. The fire is suspected to have begun in the Berkeley Hills from a poorly extinguished grass fire.
- California Wildfires 2003 – This wildfire is current enough to have been reported on by CNN. It was an 18 mile wall of flames and was dubbed the Cedar Fire. Taking place in the Southern part of the state, it happened near the community of Cuyamaca and tourist town of Julian. Although CNN reported at the time that the death toll was 16, the actual total grew to over 20.
- Mann Gulch Fire – Although the death toll was comparatively lower than the above, this fire is best remembered for taking the lives of firemen. The fire happened in Montana’s Helena National Forest in 1949. The Forest Service dispatched a team of firemen called “smokejumpers” to study the fire. However, the fire built up quickly and all but three were killed. However, they did learn a great deal on how to deliver new firefighting techniques and equipment.
- Florida Fires of 1998 – These fires happened in the summer of the year and displaced over 40,000 people from their homes. However, what is truly fascinating is this transcript from PBS on how modern day firefighters battle a blaze of this magnitude. Modern techniques, equipment, and more are all discussed.
Top International Wildfires of All Time
- Matheson Fire – In 1916, high winds blowing through the forests of Ontario, Canada turned a small fire into an inferno that destroyed nearly 800 square miles of forest. The towns of Matheson, Cochrane, and Nushka Station were destroyed in minutes. The death toll reached an unheard of 223 for the country, although the actual number was probably higher. The fire led to the passage of tougher fire safety laws for northern Ontario.
- Black Saturday Bushfires – The deadliest wildfires in Australia’s history took place in 2009 in Healesville and surrounding areas in the Southeastern state of Victoria. It burned people in their homes and cars, wiped out entire towns, and had killed 130 people at the time of this report. The fire was perpetuated by a long running drought and officials suspected that an additional 400 fires were deliberately set.
- Black Friday – Up until the above, this was the worst wildfire in Australian history. It happened in 1939 in the same state and killed 71 people. This site has more including an interactive map.
- Greek Forest Fires – Proving that wildfires happen in Europe too is this 2007 fire. It happened in the Southern Peloponnese region, near the site of the Ancient Olympics. At the time of the story, 56 were dead with more predicted. Officials blamed arson in several cases after up to 20 new fires broke out overnight after the original fire.
- Israel 2010 – Although there is plenty of man-made trouble in the Middle East, nature can still strike. In December of 2010, a major forest fire in the Northern part of Israel killed at least 40 people. More than 12,000 people were evacuated from towns and villages and a number of prison guards died in an attempt to evacuate the prison. A bright spot was that in an attempt to put out the blaze, Israel cooperated with eight other countries who sent aircrafts to help battle the blaze.
- The Great Fire of Rome – This fire stands out for being one of the very first ever recorded. It happened in the year 64 AD and went on for six days and seven nights. Although the cause was uncertain, there were rumors that Emperor Nero ordered the fire so he could blame it on his Christian enemies. It was also named the “Worst and Strangest Fire” by Socyberty.
Other Top Wildfires of All Time
- The Great San Francisco Earthquake – In 1906, one of the most significant earthquakes of all time was recorded in the city of San Francisco. However, many of the deaths came from the resulting fires. Between 400 and 700 people were estimated to have perished. The events destroyed 490 city blocks, 25,000 buildings and left 250,000 homeless. You can read actual accounts of the fire from Eye Witness to History.
- The Great Chicago Fire – In 1871, one of the best known fires in American history happened in the town of Chicago. While theories of the cause remain hypothesized, with one of the more famous being a spooked cow, it happened after the city’s small firefighting team had already put out 20 other fires. The blaze quickly spread and before being put out by rain, had killed at least 300 people, and had left 100,000 Americans homeless. This interactive guide from PBS has loads more.
- London’s Burning – What’s the worst thing that could happen on a street called Pudding Lane? Unfortunately, in the London of 1666 it was the beginning of one of the worst fires ever. By the time it was over, the fire had destroyed almost 80 percent of the city. Because of the practice of simply putting out fires by destroying houses, which were also very susceptible to fire, it was able to spread quickly.
- The Reichstag Fire – Taking place in 1933 Germany, if you guessed Nazis has something to do with it, you’re right. The Reichstag was the building of the German parliament, the symbol of their democracy, and thusly, an enemy of Adolf Hitler. Although he and his party stood to gain the most, Hitler publicly blamed the opposing communists and used the blaze as an excuse to arrest them. After the fire, Hitler presented legislation that would transfer power to himself and the members cooperatively voted themselves out of existence.
- Mount Saint Helens – Although a volcano eruption isn’t exactly a wildfire, it can be just as deadly. In 1980, this Washington State volcano erupted when an earthquake struck. The blast was heard hundreds of miles away, the pressure wave flattened entire forests, the heat melted glaciers, and 57 people lost their lives. You can even click here to see the eruption on HowStuffWorks.
- Happy Land Fire – Because man is often his own worst enemy, this unimaginable fire was set in 1990 in The Bronx. A Cuban refugee had a bout of jealousy concerning his seventeen year old ex-girlfriend. She was an employee at the Happy Land Social Club. In a fit of rage, her ex burned down the club killing her and 86 other people. Although the club had been cited for several violations by the fire department, no follow up ever happened.
- John Orr – Proving that arson doesn’t just happen in fits of passion is Orr. He was a fire captain and arson investigator during the 80’s and 90’s in the Southern California Glendale Fire Department. The first on the scene of dozens of arson fires, suspicion soon began to grow around him. After a fingerprint positively identified him as the arsonist, he was convicted of starting a fire that killed four people and was sentenced to life in prison.
- Love Letter Fire – Ever burned something your ex gave or wrote to you? Then you have a lot in common with Terry Barton. In 2002, she burned a letter from her estranged husband which resulted in the largest wildfire in Colorado history causing $30 million in damages. A U.S. Forest Service Worker, the matches Barton used to start the fire and pieces of the letter traced the fire back to her and she would go on to be convicted for it.
- Fire Bombs – One would think that pro-environment groups would be first in protesting the use of fire as protest, and for the most part, this is true. However, in the case of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), this is wrong. The FBI had ranked the ELF and the ALF as among the nation’s top domestic terrorism threats after a string of attacks beginning in 1996 against U.S. Forest Service buildings, a Vail ski resort, a wild horse slaughterhouse, and other targets. In this 2001 attack, two members were convicted of setting of a firebomb at the University of Washington, causing seven million dollars’ worth of damage.
The above top 25 wildfires of all time are just the ones that have happened since we have been recording them and keeping records for future generations. To have a look at current wildfires in the United States, click here for an updated map by the USDA Forest Service.