Wildfires are uncontrolled fires that occur in areas of dense combustible vegetation, most commonly in forests. Usually wildfires therefore primarily occur in rural areas and mostly affect the wild animals living there. However, once in a while a wildfire will spread to human-populated areas such as villages, towns, or even big cities. Wildfires can arise from entirely natural causes. Nowadays, however, around 85% of all wildfires are either indirectly or directly caused by humans. It is therefore no surprise that wildfires are becoming more and more common, especially in regions where a relatively high amount of people settled in a relatively short amount of time. The effects of these wildfires can be devastating and deadly.
The following lists the 10 deadliest wildfires in recorded history. It is based on the number of human casualties caused by the respective fire. The six deadliest wildfires all occurred in one single country…
The 10 Deadliest Wildfires in History
1. Peshtigo Fire
The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 was the deadliest wildfire in recorded human history. The fire occurred on October 8, 1871, on a day when the entirety of the Great Lake region of the United States was affected by a huge conflagration that spread throughout the U.S. states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. No place got hit harder than Peshtigo, however. The small town in northeastern Wisconsin counted around at least 1,500 deaths which represented around 85% of the town’s population at the time.
The wildfire began as several small fires, which were then likely spread by the strong wind on the day, paired with the extreme heat and drought that the region experienced in October 1871. Peshtigo just happened to be in the place where the winds most impactfully spread the fires into one large wildfire.
2. Great Michigan Fire
The second deadliest wildfire in human history had the same cause and occurred on the same day as the deadliest one in Peshtigo, while being a separate fire, however.
The Great Michigan Fire began on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan on October 8, 1871 and then spread throughout much of the Northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula as well as throughout Michigan’s upper peninsula, killing 482 people. No single town was as badly affected as Peshtigo in neighboring Wisconsin, but Michigan experienced the biggest losses in terms of burned land. This was largely due to the huge logging industry in the region at the time, which deforested much of the land and also left behind high amounts of slash and unused wood.
3. Cloquet Fire
Date: October 10, 1918 – October 12, 1918
Location: Carlton County, Minnesota, USA
Cause: Drought + Train sparks
The deadliest wildfire in the 20th Century occurred in October 1918 in Carlton County in the U.S. state of Minnesota. With 453 casualties and around 2,000 people affected, it is also the deadliest disaster in the entire history of Minnesota. The affected area of Carlton County in Northeastern Minnesota, near the state border to Wisconsin, was known for its logging industry in the early 20th Century. By the late 1910s, the area subsequently consisted of large amounts of harvested land which in turn attracted a big number of farmers who bought the open lands in the county.
This rapid harvesting in connection with the rapid population growth in the area and the unusually hot and dry October of 1918 led to the historically deadly catastrophe. On October 10 railroad workers in the area noticed a passenger train that sparked a small fire in the fields. The fire smoldered for two days before spreading rapidly throughout Carlton Country. While many towns were affected, no one got hit harder by the fire than the town of Cloquet, for which the fire has been named after.
4. Great Hinckley Fire
The fourth deadliest wildfire in recorded human history also happened in Minnesota. The fire spread throughout all of Pine County in Eastern Minnesota but was especially devastating in the small town of Hinckley, Minnesota. The fire started in the afternoon of September 1, 1894, and lasted well into the evening. In the end, 418 people lost their lives. The area was known for high logging activities during that time. The unusually hot and dry summer drought of 1894 then quickly turned several small individual fires in the nearby pine forest into one big, deadly wildfire.
5. Great Chicago Fire
Date: October 8, 1871 – October 10, 1871
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Cause: Drought / Disputed
Wildfires usually tend to affect primarily rural areas and small towns. But the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 represented an exception to the rule. The fire started on the evening of October 8 and lasted until October 10, 1871. The Great Chicago Fire caused at least 290 fatalities and left one-third of the United States’ third-largest city homeless.
The cause of the fire is still disputed. Some experts see the origin of the fire in the Great Michigan and Peshtigo Fires, which raged on the same day in the nearby states of Wisconsin and Michigan. Others blamed an Irish immigrant farmer family named O’Leary, who had a farm just outside of Chicago. The O’Leary barn caught fire on the day and the fire may have spread to the city. In any way, the extreme drought in the Great Lake region made it possible for the fire to spread so quickly and destroy Chicago’s entire downtown area.
6. Thumb Fire
Date: August 31, 1881 – September 5, 1881
Location: Michigan, USA
Cause: Drought + Logging
Ten years after the Great Michigan Fire of 1871, Michigan experienced yet another devastating wildfire in 1881. The Thumb Fire started on August 31 and lasted until September 7, 1881. It spread through much of the lower peninsula in Eastern Michigan which is oftentimes referred to as “The Thumb” because of its shape. The Thumb Fire caused 282 deaths. The cause of the fire was not much different from the one a decade earlier. The massive logging operations paired with extremely hot and dry weather conditions turned a small fire in a forest in Michigan’s Lapeer County into an uncontrollable, quickly spreading, and ultimately deadly wildfire.
7. Indonesian Forest Fires
Date: May 1997 – March 1998
Location: Borneo & Sumatra, Indonesia
Cause: Drought + Deforestation
The Indonesian Forest Fires of 1997 to 1998 are collectively not only one of the deadliest wildfires in history but also one of the longest-lasting wildfires of all time. The forest fires occurred during the 1997 Southeast Asian haze. But the fires on Borneo, which is the third largest island in the world, and Sumatra had specific reasons which made the islands specifically and especially vulnerable to the disaster. Much like in other especially deadly wildfires, Southeast Asia experienced a drought in 1997. But the forests of Borneo and Sumatra have historically been quite resistant to burning and spreading to disaster levels.
However, Indonesia started to engage in large-scale logging and forest conversion in the 1980s and 1990s. Swamps and peatlands were drained and converted into rice paddies and oil palm plantations. This deforestation and change of land fostered the fires and made them uncontrollable. The fires started in mid-1997 and lasted well into 1998. A total of 8 million hectares (20 million acres) of land was destroyed and 240 people perished in the affected countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Several thousand were also injured and/or lost their homes.
8. Black Dragon Fire
Date: May 6, 1987 – June 2, 1987
Location: Heilongjiang, China & Amur Oblast, Soviet Union (modern-day Russia)
Cause: Drought + Deforestation (disputed)
The third deadliest wildfire in history happened from May to June of 1987 in the Northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang (which literally translated means “Black Dragon River”, the Chinese name for the Amur River) and the neighboring Amur Oblast of the former Soviet Union (modern-day Russia). Experiencing an extreme drought, the region quickly consisted of parched forests. While the drought was the basis of the wildfire, it is disputed what ultimately sparked the fire.
Many ecologists blamed the Chinese government for its inconsiderable logging in the region without any plan to regrow the trees of the forest-rich region. The Chinese government rejected these accusations and instead blamed an untrained 18-year-old worker who, according to the government, accidentally ignited the fire by spilling gas from his brush cutter. The worker and his supervisor were both jailed.
The fire quickly spread throughout Heilongjiang and to the Russian Amur Oblast. Since the area was sparsely populated on the Russian side, the Soviet officials largely ignored the fire and just let it burn. This explains why at the end of the month-long fire, the Soviet Union lost around 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of the forest, while China “only” lost around 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres). But of the 191 people killed in the fires and the thousands who lost their homes, the vast majority were Chinese.
9. Black Saturday Bushfires
Date: February 7, 2009 – March 14, 2009
Location: Victoria, Australia
Cause: Heat wave + Faulty power line
An extreme heat wave and a faulty power line caused the deadliest wildfire in the history of Australia. The bushfires started on Saturday, February 7, 2009 when Southern Australia was experiencing record-breaking high temperatures. Melbourne, the capital of the Australian state of Victoria and the largest city of Australia, reached a temperature of 46.4 °C (115.5 °F), the highest ever recorded for the city. The humidity levels dropped to below 2 percent for the first time in recorded Australian history.
At the same time, winds of around 100 km/h (62 mph) were forming in Victoria which led to the collapse of a faulty installed power line in the South-central Victorian village of Kilmore East. This unfortunate line of events led to the more than a month long bushfires in Victoria. In the end, 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of land were burned and 173 people died in the fires. More than 400 additionally got injured and thousands of Australians lost their homes.
10. Attica Wildfires
Date: July 23, 2018 – July 26, 2018
Location: Attica Region, Greece
Cause: Heat wave + Negligent arson
While only lasting three days, the Attica wildfires of 2018, proved to become the deadliest fires in the long history of Greece and Europe altogether. Greece, like all of Europe, was experiencing a record-breaking heat wave in the summer of 2018. Temperatures were especially high in Attica. Attica is Greece’s by far most populous region and includes the country’s capital and largest city Athens.
On July 23, 2018, a 65-year-old Attica resident tried to burn wood in his garden. The hot and dry conditions of the environment however quickly made the fire spread throughout the entire well-wooded coastline of Attica. The fire even reached the suburbs of Athens. Even though the amount of burned land was relatively low, the human and structure losses were immense due to the densely populated areas affected. 102 people lost their lives and more than a thousand people lost their homes.
The 10 Deadliest Wildfires in History
(at a glance)
(as of January 2020)
|The 10 Deadliest Wildfires in History:
|1. PESHTIGO FIRE (1871)
|2. GREAT MICHIGAN FIRE (1871)
|3. CLOQUET FIRE (1918)
|4. GREAT HINCKLEY FIRE (1894)
|5. GREAT CHICAGO FIRE (1871)
|6. THUMB FIRE (1881)
|7. INDONESIAN FOREST FIRES (1997-1998)
|8. BLACK DRAGON FIRE (1987)
|9. BLACK SATURDAY BUSHFIRES (2009)
|10. ATTICA WILDFIRES (2018)
Deadliest wildfires in history by the number of fatalities they caused.