Spontaneous, Terrifying, Destructive, and Deadly – Ten Worst Forest Fires In U.S. History

Sometimes called wildfires, brush fires, forest fires, grass fires or peat fires, forest fires are uncontrolled fires of combustible vegetation in rural, forested or wilderness areas.

Wildfire generates intense winds and can leap firebreaks, streams, roads and other natural and man-made obstacles. A large fire frequently creates hurricane force winds of more than 120 miles per hour. The intense wind sucks the moisture from all the material in its path, preparing the now tinder dry combustibles to burn more readily.

Great Peshtigo Fire – October 8 – 14, 1871

Although wildfires have wrought death and devastation in all 50 states, the most horrific firestorms have happened in the Upper Midwestern region of the United States. The single worst fire ever, the Great Peshtigo Fire, started on an unseasonably warm day in mid-autumn. The woods were tinder dry, drained of humidity by a strong prevailing wind from the southeast. Investigators believe the fire started from unattended burning by a local logging crew. The inferno consumed 3.8 million acres (5,938 square miles) of fields, forests, and farmland. The fire killed more than 1500 men, women, and children. Thousands of livestock animals, family pets and wildlife also perished in the smoke and flames. The massive fire spawned numerous fire tornados, fanning the flames higher and hotter. The fire became so intense that persons and animals seeking safety in farm ponds, wells, streams, and rivers boiled to death.

The week of October 8th, 1871 saw additional firestorms obliterate over 2 million heavily forested acres and cost 200 lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Michigan fires swept through the “thumb” of the state near Port Huron. The Great Chicago Fire sprang into demonic life that same week. The Chicago fire took the life of 300 city residents and was one of the worst urban fires in U.S. history.

Hinckley, Michigan Fire – September 1, 1894

An extended drought, unseasonably high temperatures and an accumulation of logging debris combined to create ideal conditions for a massive fast-moving firestorm that cremated over 160,000 acres, six communities and 600 people, including 413 individuals in the town of Hinckley.

The raging inferno spread over 400 square miles, greedily consuming everything in its path. More than 1,500 were forced to flee the fire. The ensuing evacuation resulted in a nightmarish flight of fear: many persons that survived the catastrophic wildland fire by seeking refuge in ponds, wells and potato fields, suffered severe smoke inhalation and horrific burns. For days after the fire, rescue crews found people wandering about in apparent shock, unable to comprehend the reality of losing everything: wives, husbands, children and material goods.

A freakish temperature inversion trapped deadly gasses generated by the fire, pushing the temperatures in some spots to an excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After the firestorm passed, and wreckage cooked, kegs of nails were found melted into one solid mass. At the railroad yard maintained by the Eastern Minnesota Railroad, the wheels of standing railcars melted and fused with the rails.

Thousands of traumatized survivors were transported by railcar to Detroit and Duluth were local citizens opened their homes and hearts to the displaced victims of the tragedy.

Yacoult Fire – September 1902

During the fall of 1902, the seasonal rains that normally cooled Washington and Oregon were late. The normally lush and verdant forests starved for moisture and primed to burn became a disaster waiting to happen. The Yacoult Fire, a collective name for a handful of fires that threaten live and property in adjoining states, claimed the lives of 38 people and consumed over a million acres of old-growth timber.

The fires started by human err: the first one exploded into a firestorm when two young boys tried to burn out a hornet’s nest. Nearby combustibles quickly caught fire spawning hot ash; sparks and embers carried on the wind. Other nearby fires were started by lightning and by careless berry pickers leaving a campfire unattended. During the long, hot days of September still, other fires were the result of sparks from the railroad.

The Yacoult Fire was one of the most destructive fires of the nationwide 1902 fire season. Although the fires of 1902 are referred to as the Yacoult Fire, the town of Yacoult survived unscathed while the Washington towns of Elma, Bucoda, and Vale perished. Property loss in Washington State as a result of the firestorms of 1902 tallied of more than $13 million. Neighboring Multnomah County in Oregon sustained assessed property damage of more than $1 million 1902 dollars.

Big Blowup Fire – August 20 - 21, 1910

Because of the early and unseasonably warm spring, the heavily timbered mountainsides and tall grass meadows of northwestern Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington were parched, brittle and dry. Conditions were ideal for disaster. The first fire of the season started in April, reportedly from a lightening strike.

As spring matured into summer, the drought persisted: fire conditions became extreme. The intense heat of summer fostered mountain thunderstorms and fire igniting lightening strikes. Isolated firestorms ravaged the Lolo, Bitterroot, Clearwater, Cabinet, Flathead and Kaniksu National Forests. On August 20, 1910, the remote wildland fires converged in a volcanic combustion known as the “Big Blowup.”

Miners, loggers, homesteaders, ranchers and local small town residents fled in terror, fearing the world was about to come to a horrific end: for 86 souls, it did. Among the dead were 29 firefighters overcome by a wall of flame and trapped in a straight box canyon with no route of escape.

Known as the largest wildfire in the world, the Big Blowup incinerated over 3 million acres: a land mass larger than the State of New Jersey. Forester Edward G. Stahl recalled that flames hundreds of feet high were "fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell."

Today, more than 100 years after the Big Blowup, the charred remains of giant cedar trees stand like gray ghosts along the mountain ridges: silent reminders of the fragility of the forest and that it only takes the spark of one match to turn dry timber into a deadly inferno.

Cloquet Fire – October 13 – 15, 1918

The deadliest and largest forest fire in Minnesota history started from a spark from a railroad car igniting dry grasses near the train tracks. More than 453 persons lost their lives in a single day: 52,000 people were burned, injured or lost their homes. The raging blaze burned over 250,000 acres in Minnesota and neighboring Wisconsin, destroying 38 communities and racking up over $73 million dollars in property damage. A prolonged drought, high winds and a lack of firefighting equipment contributed to the massive destruction and high death toll.

In a newspaper interview with the New York Times following the fire, Albert Michaud, a police officer in Cloquet reported the fear and chaos of the evacuation process, stating, "At 6 o'clock last night, a forest ranger gave warning that unless the wind died down the townspeople would have to flee...The scene at the station was indescribable. There came a rush of wind and the entire town was in flames. The trains pulled out with the fires blazing closely behind them. Women wept and clung to their children while others cried frantically for their missing ones. The flames licked at the cars. Windows in the coaches were broken by the heat. The engineers and firemen alternately stoked, to give the boilers all the fuel they could stand."

Firefighting expenditures of the Cloquet fire were incalculable.

Mann Gulch Fire – August 5, 1949

Heavily timbered, steep and remote locations in northwestern Montana frequently experience a multitude of small fires started by heat-generated thunderstorms. Unless the fires threaten life or property, the USFS place a low importance on extinguishing the flames. When human life is in danger, or there is a high probability that the fire could spread beyond containment, fire suppression activity commences.

On August 5th, 12 smokejumpers and 1 U.S. forest ranger parachuted to a remote spot on the edge of the Mann Gulch fire that was moving like a hell-powered blowtorch through the mountainous terrain near Helena, Montana, The rocky and rugged terrain made fighting the fire especially difficult. It was extremely difficult to transport men and equipment to the fire location. Overtaken upon landing by a 200-foot wall of flame that topped a gulch, only 3 of the valiant hotshot crew survived.

Oakland-Berkeley, California Fire – October 20 to 23, 1991

During the fire season of 1991, drought-stricken California experienced an especially nasty rash of wildfires. The scenic rolling hills near the city of Oakland supported a thick carpet of dense and dry brush: the perfect fire fuel. The largest, deadliest and costliest of that year was the Oakland-Berkeley, California brush an estimated caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damages and firefighting expenditures. The fires wrought such extensive destruction that full recovery took more than a decade to accomplish.

Insurance and government statistics highlight the Oakland, California firestorm of 1991 as the costliest fire disaster in United States history. What began as a small brush fire that firefighters believed was extinguished reignited and rapidly grew to a gigantic combustion that spread in all directions from the ignition site. Originating high in the bone-dry Oakland Hills, the fire instantly engulfed thick brush parched from a prolonged 5-year drought. As the fire raced down the dehydrated canyons, elegant neighborhood side streets and cul-de-sacs became the corridors of hell. Within an hour, the wildfire demolished 2,843 home, 433 apartments and took 25 lives.

Cedar Fire – October 25 to 29, 2003

The largest fire in California’s history to date, the Cedar Fire, located near San Diego forced more than 80,000 people to flee for their lives: 24 died. Although the USFS responded immediately, dispatching ten engine trucks to the site of the outbreak, the fire laughed at the futility of their meager efforts. The fast-moving firestorm burned 800,000 acres and destroyed 3,640 homes. The Cedar Fire was one of the 15 wildfires that challenged state resources and firefighters – as conditions worsened, many of them escalated to connect with nearby smaller blazes. Before fire agencies gained containment and control over the heated chaos, more than 15,500 firefighters and equipment procured from all across the country were required to contain the deadly blaze. Also known as Firestorm 2003 or the 2003 Firestorm, the destructive fire highlighted the foolishness of building homes on hillsides in known fire prone areas.

Colorado Fires – June 9 to July 23, 2012

2012 was a devastating fire year for the State of Colorado. From early June through July over a dozen separate wildfires raged across the state. The Waldo Canyon fire provoked the evacuation of 32,000 residents and incinerated over 19,000 acres. In total, the fires caused six deaths, burned 600 homes and devoured 244,000 acres of grasslands and thick timber. Before the firestorms calmed, military assistance in the form of aircraft tankers and National Guard troops were required. It was the worst year ever for Colorado wildfires.

Yarnell Hill Fire – June 30, 2013

The history of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history culminates with the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, Arizona. On June 30th, 19 elite firefighters, part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, perished while fighting the fire. The prevailing wind suddenly switched directions, engulfing the men in a fireball from which there was no chance of escape. America continues to mourn the loss of these brave young men: the worst single incident loss of firefighters since 911.

Although forest fire prevention and suppression techniques have improved over the past several decade and technology, firefighting equipment, chemical retardants and firefighting training are superior to those used over 100 years ago, uncontrolled wildfires are a constant threat and unpredictable. As long as firefighters battle fire, lives are at risk.

References:

1. http://fhsarchives.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/october-8-1871-peshtigo-wisconsin-is-consumed-by-fire/

2. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/massive-fire-burns-in-wisconsin

3. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=742

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14. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/48/v48i07p270-282.pdf

15. http://wlfalwaysremember.org/incident-lists/322-cloquet-fire-of-1918.html

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17. http://www.acadianationalpark.com/history_museums/1947_fire.php

18. http://www.usslittlerock.org/Acadia_Maine_Fire.html

19. http://www.fireleadership.gov/toolbox/staffride/downloads/lsr14/Race_That_Couldnt_Be_Won.pdf

20. http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/Mann_Gulch_Fire_1949.pdf

21. http://fhsarchives.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/august-5-1949-mann-gulch-tragedy/

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23. http://comspark.com/esarc/articles/hr_roleindisasters.htm

24. http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibition/misrach_fire

25. http://www.coloradofirecamp.com/south-canyon-fire/chronology-2.htm

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27. http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_rp009/1intro.html

28. http://calfire.blogspot.com/2008/10/cedar-fire-october-25-2003-280278-acres.html

29. http://www.fire.ca.gov/fire_protection/downloads/CSAR2%20_05.pdf

30. http://wildfirelessons.net/documents/Novato_FD_Cedar_Report_72DPI.pdf

31. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Colorado_wildfires

32. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldo_Canyon_fire

33. http://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/arp/landmanagement/resourcemanagement/?cid=stelprdb5360928&width=full

34. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/30/arizona-wildfire-yarnell_n_3526934.html

35. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=81549

Marlene Affeld
Marlene Affeld

“A passionate writer for more than 30 years, Marlene Affeld’s passion for the environment inspires her to write informative articles to assist others in living a green lifestyle.”

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Spontaneous, Terrifying, Destructive, and Deadly – Ten Worst Forest Fires In U.S. History