10 Deadliest Wildfires in World History

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.

1. Peshtigo Fire

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A contemporary painting showing survivors of the Peshtigo Fire fleeing by boat over the Peshtigo River

Date: October 8, 1871
Location: Peshtigo, Wisconsin, USA
Cause: Drought

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

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A commemorative plaque reminding of the Great Michigan Fire of 1871.

Date: October 8, 1871
Location: Michigan, USA
Cause: Drought + Logging

The second deadliest wildfire in human history had the same cause and occurred on the same day as the deadliest one. 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

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Ruins of Cloquet, Minnesota after the 1918 Cloquet Fire (Source: Carlton County History)

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 got hit harder by the fire than the town of Cloquet, for which the fire has been named after.

4. Great Hinckley Fire

Hinckley Minnesota after the 1894 fire

Ruins of Hinckley, Minnesota after the 1894 Great Hinckley Fire

Date: September 1, 1894
Location: Pine County, Minnesota, USA
Cause: Drought + Logging

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 its 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

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Contemporary painting of the Chicago citizens fleeing their city during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

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’ already third-largest city at the time homeless. The cause of the fire is still disputed. Some experts see the origin of the fire in 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’s 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

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Michigan families fleeing from the Thumb Fire of 1881, the wildfire flames can be seen in the background.

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

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Date: 1997 – 1998
Location: Borneo & Sumatra, Indonesia
Cause: Drought + Deforestation

The Indonesian Forest Fires of 1997 to 1998 are collectively not only the second deadliest wildfire 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 Minnesota of 1918, 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

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Date: May 6, 1987 – June 2, 1987
Location: Heilongjiang, China & Amur Oblast, Soviet Union
Cause: Drought / Disputed

The third deadliest wildfire in history happened in 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

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30/10/2009: Vic fire scene – Black Saturday bushfire in Labertouche, Victoria. A blaze so big that it resembles a nuclear explosion makes a frightening backdrop to this fire truck.

Date: February 7, 2009 – March 14, 2009
Location: Victoria, Australia
Cause: Heatwave + Faulty power line

An extreme heatwave 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 also for the first time in recorded Australian history dropped to below 2 percent. 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 more than 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

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Date: July 23, 2018 – July 26, 2018
Location: Attica Region, Greece
Cause: Heatwave + 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 heatwave 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 stayed 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.

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