North America has a long and painful history with wildfires. While today’s biggest and deadliest wildfires typically strike the Western United States—where climate change has lengthened and aggravated the annual “fire season”—some of the worst wildfires in North American history ravaged the Midwest and Canada.
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For three days in October of 1871, the entire Upper Midwest of the United States was a raging inferno. Four of the worst fires in American history, known collectively as the Great Fires of 1871, burned simultaneously in Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Among them was the legendary Great Chicago Fire that killed an estimated 300 people, charred 17,500 buildings and left 100,000 people homeless.
Meanwhile, three other wildfires claimed more than 500 lives in Michigan. But the deadliest of the Great Fires was the Peshtigo Fire that ripped through the rural Wisconsin logging town of Peshtigo on the night of October 8, 1871.
The fast-moving wildfire killed 800 residents in Peshtigo alone and claimed as many as 2,400 total victims, making it the deadliest fire in recorded North American history.
The summer and fall of 1871 were some of the driest seasons on record in the Midwest. The drought conditions alone would have been enough to make Peshtigo a tinderbox, but the situation was worsened by reckless logging practices that littered the landscape with dead branches and stumps.
On October 8, a storm front pushed into the Upper Midwest with 100-mph winds that whipped small wildfires into flaming cyclones that hit Peshtigo without warning. Many of the town’s survivors spent a hellish night in the Peshtigo River flanked by walls of flames.
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The second-deadliest fire in North America also struck the Upper Midwest nearly 50 years after the Great Fires of 1871. The conditions in 1918 were nearly the same—in fact, it was the driest October in 48 years—when sparks from a passing train ignited a wildfire outside of the small town of Cloquet, Minnesota.
The fire smoldered for several days until October 12, when winds measuring as high as 76 mph fanned the previously tame wildfire into a raging killer. The Cloquet Fire fully consumed the towns of Cloquet, Moose Lake and Kettle River before bearing down on the larger city of Duluth.
More than 1,000 people lost their lives in the wildfire, 38 communities were destroyed and 250,000 acres burned.
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The historic village of Lahaina on the island of Maui was a tropical paradise that was once the capital of the Hawaiian Empire. But on August 8, 2023, gusting winds from a passing hurricane fueled some existing brush fires into an uncontrollable inferno that leveled Lahaina, killing dozens of unsuspecting residents and tourists.
The trouble started not long after midnight in the early hours of August 8 when authorities reported a brush fire in the Maui Upcountry, the rolling hills and volcanic mountains near the center of the island. A second fire sparked outside of Lahaina around 6:30 that morning, but Maui fire authorities reported that it was fully contained by 9:00 a.m.
Then gusting winds from Hurricane Dora, which passed the Hawaiian Islands hundreds of miles to the south, fanned the brush fires back to life. In the confusion and chaos, many residents of Lahaina didn’t know that they were surrounded by a tightening circle of flames. When escape routes were blocked by choking smoke and searing heat, some desperate residents scrambled into the ocean and remained there for hours.
The death toll from the Maui wildfires stands at 114 (as of August 21, 2023), already making the blaze the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Sadly, those numbers were expected to increase as an estimated 1,000 remained missing or unaccounted for.
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Over just 36 hours in August of 1910, an unprecedented wildfire known as the “Big Burn” or the “Big Blow Up” scorched 3 million acres of virgin forest in Montana, Idaho and Washington. It was an early and painful test of the U.S. Forestry Service, formed in 1905. Of the 87 people who died in the blaze, 78 of them were firefighters.
As with other deadly fires in North America, the 1910 blaze began as a patchwork of small brush fires burning in drought-stricken forests. Then came the wind. Hurricane-force winds from a massive cold front slammed into the region and whipped the brush fires into a frenzy.
Firefighters and survivors of the Big Blow Up flaming trees ripped from the ground and hurled through the air at 70 m.p.h. The heat was so intense that trees “exploded like Roman candles,” according to one survivor.
The death and destruction wrought by the Big Blow Up convinced the U.S. Forestry Service to combat and contain even the smallest forest fires to avoid another massive conflagration.
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In November of 2018, the Northern Californian town of Paradise was transformed into a living hell by the deadliest wildfire in California history. The late summer and fall are known as “fire season” in California, but nothing prepared the communities of Paradise and nearby Concow for the violence and intensity of the Camp Fire.
The blaze was ignited on November 8 by a nearly 100-year-old electrical transmission line in the Sierra Nevada foothills above Paradise. A stiff wind pushed the wildfire rapidly downhill before many residents of nearby communities could escape. The speed of the wildfire at its peak intensity was calculated as “80 football fields a minute.”
It took just four hours for the Camp Fire to nearly erase the town of Paradise, claiming 86 lives and leaving more than 30,000 people homeless. More than 5,500 firefighters were deployed to fight the deadly blaze, which burned for 17 days.