The United States witnesses massive wildfires during the late summer months almost every year. The rapid development in fire-prone regions and global warming are only going to make wildfires worse in the coming years. Fire seasons – which experts describe as periods of dry and hot weather – have been growing longer in several states including California, which was gripped by the Camp Fire only a few months ago. Here we take a look at the top 10 deadliest wildfires in the recorded US history.
The deadliest wildfires in the recorded US history
This list doesn’t include the Miramichi Fire of 1825 or The Great Oregon Fire of 1845 or The Silverton Fire of 1865 because there is limited or no record of the lives lost and property damage. There were as many wildfires a century or two ago as there are today. But now we have a much greater population, which significantly increases the likelihood of people getting caught in wildfires.
The ranking below is based on the number of lives lost rather than the size of the wildfires or damages caused.
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10- Yarnell Hill Fire, 2013
The Yarnell Hill Fire was ignited by a lightning strike on June 28, 2013 in Arizona. It burned through 8,400 acres of land and claimed the lives of 19 firefighters, making it the biggest firefighter tragedy since the 9/11 attack in 2001. The firefighters were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots within the Prescott Fire Department. They died when the wildfire exploded into a firestorm. It caused damages worth $664 million.
9- Oakland Hills Fire, 1991
The Oakland Hills Fire in Oakland, California claimed the lives of 25 people and injured another 150 people. It started as a wind-driven brush fire and spread rapidly to destroy about 3,000 apartment buildings and homes in upscale residential neighborhoods. The Oakland Hills Fire caused $1.5 billion in damages.
8- Griffith Park Fire, 1933
The Griffith Park Fire of Los Angeles was the deadliest wildfire in the history of California until the Camp Fire in 2018. It started as a brush fire in 1933 but quickly spread across the Mineral Wells Canyon and burned through 47 acres of land. It killed 29 firefighters and injured more than 150 people.
7- The Great Fire, 1910
The Great Fire of 1910 was the largest wildfire in the recorded US history, burning through 3 million acres of land in the states of Montana and Idaho in just two days. Strong summer winds caused many smaller fires to form one giant wildfire. It earned different nicknames such as the Big Blowup, Big Burn, and the Devil’s Broom. According to the Forest History Society, The Great Fire killed 87 people, most of whom were firefighters.
6- Camp Fire, 2018
The Camp Fire has become the deadliest wildfire in the history of California. It began on November 8, 2018 in Butte County and burned through 153,336 acres of land. It is estimated to have destroyed close to 19,000 homes and claimed 89 lives. It took firefighters almost three weeks to fully contain it, but search and rescue operations continued for close to four weeks. Pacific Gas & Electric – which has filed for bankruptcy – has admitted that its equipment might have caused the Camp Fire. The fire has caused damages worth up to $10 billion.
5- Thumb Fire, 1881
The Thumb Fire began on September 5, 1881 in the Thumb area of Michigan. It burned through more than one million acres of land in a single day and killed 282 people. Its flames had turned the sky on the East Coast into a yellowish color. The Thumb Fire was triggered by a combination of drought, hurricane winds, and heat.
4- The Great Hinckley Fire, 1894
The Great Hinckley Fire was a conflagration in the pine forests of Minnesota. It occurred in September 1894 and burned through an area of 250,000 acres in just four hours. The official death toll was 418 people, but unofficial reports claim hundreds of Native Americans had also lost lives in the fire.
3- The Great Michigan Fire, 1871
The Great Michigan Fire took shape when a number of smaller fires came together in October 1871. It is estimated to have burned through 2.5 million acres of land, destroying the town of Port Huron and Holland. It was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire – which occurred on the same day – in press coverage. According to historians, the Great Michigan Fire claimed more than 500 lives.
2- Cloquet Fire, 1918
The Cloquet Fire broke out on October 12, 1918 and burned through over 100,000 acres of land. It was caused by sparks from a local railroad and fueled by the hot and dry weather conditions. The Cloquet Fire killed more than 560 people and destroyed 38 communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. It also injured more than 12,000 people and caused property damages worth $73 million.
1- Peshtigo Fire, 1871
The Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin is estimated to have killed between 1,200 and 2,500 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in the US history. According to the National Weather Service, the blaze started as a brush fire in a Wisconsin forest and burned through 1.2 million acres of land. It destroyed 17 towns and caused damages worth $169 million.