Worst wildfires in US history (2023)

The worst wildfires in US history

The wildfire outside California has now expanded to 192,466 acres as of 7 a.m. PT on August 29, making it the largest wildfire on record to hit California's Sierra Nevada. However, it is only the sixth largest wildfire in California history (so far), because most of the state's largest wildfires occur in the southern and central California coastal regions towards the end of the dry season. . To put that fire in perspective, here's a look back at the largest (and deadliest) wildfires in US history.

Worst wildfires in US history (1)

The rimfire experienced explosive growth on August 24 and 25, when this photo was taken in the foothills of the Sierra.Photo by Justin Sullivan.

The worst wildfires in US history


Large, destructive wildfires occur in California nearly every year, with the worst typically occurring in October, when the long dry season ends (California generally doesn't rain between May 15 and October 15). The most destructive fires (in terms of human population) generally occur in the densely populated coastal regions between San Diego and San Francisco, subject to strong easterly winds, also known as Santa Ana (in southern California) and Diablo (in the Central California). ). . ). This wind phenomenon is more common in the months of September and October.

The largest fire in modern California history was the Cedar Fire in San Diego County in October 2003. It burned 273,246 acres (430 sq mi), destroyed 2,820 buildings, and killed 15 people.

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A satellite image shows the huge plume of smoke from the Cedar Fire that tore through the coast of San Diego County on October 25, 2003.

Here's a list of the 10 largest wildfires in California (by area consumed), including fire name, cause, date, county or region most affected, and area burned.

October 2003
San Diego County

(Video) Top 10 Most Devastating Fires in History

August 2012
Lassen County

July 2007
Santa Barbara County

September 1932
Ventura County

October 2007
San Diego County

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

June 2008
Siskiyou Kreis

July 1977
Monterey Region

September 1970
San Diego County

June 2008
Monterey Region

The deadliest urban fire, however, was the one that burned in the cities of Oakland and Berkeley on October 20, 1991. Although only about 1,500 acres burned, the fire consumed 3,500 homes and residences and killed 25. An event of Devil wind is still the deadliest. and the costliest urban fire in US history (depending on how you look at the Chicago fire of 1871).

Worst wildfires in US history (3)

A resident of Oakland's Rockridge district watches his neighbors' homes burn during the massive wildfire on October 20, 1991. Unlike the wildfires in Southern California, this fire reached into the heart of an urban area. This was the second deadliest and costliest urban wildfire in US history (considering the 1871 Chicago fire a "wildfire", more on that below).Photo by Jim Pire. This photo is a still from one of the most incredible natural disaster videos ever made (by Jim Pire). Could beI saw it complete here. This is the first time that this extraordinary video has been published in its entirety and without edits.(about 60 minutes long, but well worth the effort!).

(Video) What was the largest wildfire in US history?

Oh ring fire

The cause of this ongoing wildfire has yet to be determined, but its unusual size and intensity are the result of the extreme lack of rain in the Sierra Nevada and across the state since January 1. It was the driest January-August period on record. For example, San Francisco has only recorded 3.54 inches of precipitation since January 1 (normal for this period should be 14.50 inches). With complete rainfall records for the city going back to October 1849, this is a remarkable achievement. For the entire state of California, rainfall totals from January through August averaged just 4.58 inches, well below the previous record of 6.27 inches set in 1898. An excellent article on how drought fueled wildfires in the West.can be read in this recent Climate Central article. Contains many interesting graphics and links.

Worst wildfires in US history (4)

A series of nighttime satellite images show how the Rim Fire has spread through Yosemite National Park over the past four days. The Reno lights can be seen north of the fire zone.NASA-Erdobservatorium.

Below is a compilation of the worst wildfires in US history, taken from a blog I posted in June 2011.


The worst wildfire in US history, in terms of 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 people per week in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan Killed October 8–January 14, 1871. Many sources estimate the size of the fire at between 1.2 and 1.5 million acres, but this only includes the area it burned completely and not the additional 2.3 million acres in neighboring counties that also suffered fire damage (see maps below). ). ). Wildfires in logging camps in the area likely caused the fire. After a long, hot, and very dry summer, strong, warm autumn winds from the southwest fanned the out-of-control fires. Fire tornadoes were reported in several locations, with the fire growing so large that people who fled into the rivers were boiled to death.

Worst wildfires in US history (5)

Worst wildfires in US history (6)

These maps illustrate the extent of the 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and a portion of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.Wisconsin Atlas Maps.

Several other fires broke out in Michigan at the same time, the worst of which burned another million acres (1,562 square miles) in the Thumb region of Michigan and the southwestern part of the state, killing 200 people, mostly in Port Huron and its surrounding areas. surroundings. .

Worst wildfires in US history (7)

(Video) The Worst Wildfires in US History

This map shows the locations of all major fires that occurred in the upper Midwest between October 8 and October 21, 1871.

Shockingly, that same week (October 8-10) also saw the most notorious Great Chicago Fire and remains the worst single city fire in US history, killing over 300 (assuming we're covering it). related to the earthquake). . In fact, there is a connection between the Wisconsin and Michigan wildfires and those in Chicago. An apocryphal story (made up by a journalist) attributed the cause of the Chicago fire to a cow that dropped a lantern in a barn. In fact, the fire was likely caused by embers from the wildfires west of the city, which were blown into the city by the same strong southwesterly winds (which fanned the Wisconsin flames) and set some of the buildings on fire. predominant wood. . in the city area at the time.

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An antique map of Chicago showing the area of ​​fire during the October 8-10, 1871 fire. Note how the fire started in the southwestern part of the city and how strong southwesterly winds spread the flames to the northeast and north the city center.

In all, more than 2,000 people were killed and nearly 5 million acres (7,800 square miles) burned in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois during the weeks of October 8 through October 21, 1871. An intriguing but probably apocryphal theory holds that the fires in They were actually caused by the impact of fragments of the Biela comet, which was observed at that time.

It should be noted that all of the deadliest wildfires in United States history have occurred in the upper Midwest. Other notable fires included the Cloquet, Minnesota fire of October 13–15, 1918, which killed up to 1,000 people, and the Hinkley, Minnesota fire of September 1, 1894, which killed between 400 and 800 people.


The worst wildfire in Western history and the second worst overall in the United States was the Great Fire of 1910. This great wildfire burned about 3 million acres (4,700 square miles) in Idaho and Montana on January 20-21. August 1910. Killed at least 87 people, mostly poorly equipped firefighters, including a lone crew of 28 who were engulfed in flames near Setzer Creek outside Avery, Idaho. Hardest hit was Wallace, Idaho, a third of which was leveled.

Worst wildfires in US history (9)

Wallace, Idaho is in ruins after the great fire of 1910. One third of the city burned down.Photo source unknown.

The fire was (as usual) the culmination of a long, dry summer that spawned a series of small fires that developed into a single conflagration from high winds on August 20 during the passage of a strong cold front. Smoke from the fire was seen in eastern New York state.

The 1910 fire was the historic event that led the US Forest Service to aim to prevent and fight all wildfires. This policy is still in effect today, but is the subject of considerable controversy. The debate peaked in the summer of 1988, when 800,000 acres (1,250 square miles) of Yellowstone National Park burned.

(Video) How decades of stopping forest fires made them worse

pacific northwest

The largest wildfire in the Pacific Northwest was the Siskiyou National Wildfire on July 12–15, 2002 in southern Oregon. Approximately 500,000 acres (781 sq mi) burned. Fortunately, there were no casualties or major structural losses, as the fire was largely confined to a wild area.


The largest (and deadliest) wildfire in Canadian history, as well as in the northeastern United States, was the Miramichi fire of October 7, 1825. An estimated 3 million acres (4,685 sq mi) of forest burned in the Canadian province of New Brunswick and the US state of Maine. At least 160 people were killed, but the number could have been much higher as an unknown number of loggers may have died in the area.

A fire in Acadia National Park, Maine, on October 25–27, 1947, destroyed much of Bar Harbor, burning 205,678 acres (321 sq mi) and killing 16.

Canada's largest fire in modern history was the Chapleau-Missisissagi fire of May–June 1948 in northeastern Ontario. It burned 691,880 acres (1,081 sq mi), and smoke from the fire was thick enough in Texas to ignite daytime running lights in some cities. A smaller but deadlier wildfire known as the Porcupine Fire burned 494,000 acres (772 sq mi) in northern Ontario in July 1911. At least 70 people were killed in various mining camps and communities in the area.

Worst wildfires in US history (10)

On May 23, 2001, an intense crown fire broke out near Chisholm, Alberta, Canada. The fire ended up consuming 286,636 acres and was the largest wildfire in Alberta's history.Photo from The Atlas of Canada, courtesy of the Alberta Government for Sustainable Resource Development.


A series of large Alaskan wildfires in the summer of 2004 burned a total of 5 million acres (7,800 sq mi), the largest on record in the state, although there is plenty of evidence that mass fires in events often reached thousands. of square miles. before. of the modern colonization of the state.

Christopher C Burt
historian of time

The views of the author are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of The Weather Company or its parent company, IBM.

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