Just a whisper of the word “wildfire” strikes terror in the hearts of many Americans. While California makes the headlines most often for its wildfires, not one of the deadliest wildfires in history occurred there. The top five wildfires might not have been the most destructive, but they burned so hot and so fast that they claimed hundreds of lives.
5 Miramichi Fire, 1825
The deadliest fire in North American history is also the largest, although the final tally of confirmed dead that was reported is thought to be nowhere near the actual total. The Miramichi Fire, which swept along the Miramichi River in the Canadian province of New Brunswick and through parts of Maine, killed at least 160 people on Oct. 7, 1825. It burned an estimated 3 million acres of forest. It’s thought that the true death toll is probably much higher than 160, because an unknown number of loggers in the area are believed to have perished in the fire, but their bodies were never recovered.
4 The Great Chicago Fire
The Great Chicago Fire happened on the same week as the Peshtigo blaze, but a few decades later. Between Oct. 8 and 10, 1906, the Great Chicago Fire killed more than 300 people. Its cause is uncertain. Some say a cow knocked over a lantern in a barn and that ignited the wildfire, while others say it was caused by embers drifting into town from fires burning in the woods west of Chicago. Whatever the cause, the embers reached Chicago, which was full of wooden buildings at the time, and the hot, dry conditions combined with autumn winds created a deadly fire storm.
3 Hinckley Fire, 1894
On Sept. 1, 1894, the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, was destroyed by a wildfire that raged through the town. The fire raced across 480 square miles and burned 350,000 acres, after a long drought made the region a tinderbox just waiting for a spark. When the fire raged through Hinckley, people hid in wells, swamps, gravel pits and rivers to escape the smoke and flames, but this deadly fire still claimed more than 400 lives.
2 Cloquet Fire, 1918
In the fall of 1918, the small town of Cloquet, Minnesota, made headlines when wildfire destroyed more than 52,000 homes in 30 communities. On Oct. 12 of that year, after a dry, hot summer, sparks from train engines ignited dry brush along the railroad tracks, growing into a fire that blazed until Oct. 15. The people in its path tried to protect themselves by hiding in wells or root cellars, but the fire still claimed between 400 and 1,000 lives. The tally varies from source to source, but even at the lowest estimate, the Cloquet Fire is one of the deadliest in history.
1 Great Peshtigo Fire
On Oct. 8, 1871, the worst wildfire in U.S. history, both in deadliness and size, swept across northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. No direct cause was ever determined, but it’s believed to have started in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The flames raged until Oct. 14, 1871, burning more than 3.7 million acres. According to “Time” magazine, by the time the smoke cleared, the death toll reached an unfathomable 2,500. The fire became so hot that people trying to escape into rivers were boiled. The Peshtigo fire is often overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, but Peshtigo’s flames killed more people than that fire and any fire since.