Top 10 Most Devastating Fires in History

Script written by Robert Loubier.

Some of the worst natural disasters in recorded history have been fires – wildfires, bushfires, forest fires, building fires, etc. Destructive fires like the 2007 California Wildfires, the Great Fire of Rome or the Fort McMurray Wildfire have proved to be some of the biggest fires ever. WatchMojo counts down ten of the most famous in history.

Special thanks to our users Tyson Turner, MikeMJPMUNCH, htimreimer, Margaret Rd, David Ram, Kris A, Mr.Kinky7, Jim Haines, EmJay, Jaime Enrique Gutierrez Pérez and urbanwatch69 for suggesting this idea! Check out the voting page at WatchMojo.comsuggest/Top%20Ten%20Most%20Devastating%20Fires%20in%20History

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Script written by Robert Loubier.

Top 10 Most Devastating Fires in History


These infernos are a sobering reminder of nature’s awesome power. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Worst Fires in History.

For this list, we’re taking a look at fires that started in either urban or rural areas, like forests, cities or the countryside. We’re taking into account the number of casualties and injuries, the cost of the fires – in terms of how much it cost to fight them and the value of the property destroyed – as well as the total amount of land decimated.

#10: 2007 California Wildfires
Fall 2007

The 2007 California Wildfire Season was one of the worst in state history; at its peak, over 9,000 separate fires burned, and they were so big they could be seen from space. Approximately one million acres of land from Santa Barbara County down to the US-Mexico border was destroyed. 14 people died, nine directly due to the flames. Countless others were injured and forced to evacuate their homes. In October, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in seven counties while President George W. Bush called for federal aid to assist state and local efforts. When it was over, more than a million people were displaced and damages reached well into the billions of dollars.

#9: Great Chicago Fire
October 1871

On the night of October 8, 1871, a small fire ignited in a barn on DeKoven Street. Two days and over $220 million in damage later, roughly 3.3 square miles of the Windy City was destroyed and an estimated 300 people were dead. Despite a swift response by the Chicago Fire Department, the firefighters ended up in an incorrect location because of the watchman’s mistake, and so the inferno grew unchecked. Drought conditions and the use of wood as the prominent building material aided the spread of the flames. While nobody knows for sure how exactly the fire started, the Chicago Fire Academy, which now sits on DeKoven Street, makes certain it doesn’t happen again.

#8: 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire
May 2016

Starting on May 1, 2016, fires in the southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta – an important community for Canada’s petroleum industry – triggered the largest wildfire evacuation in the province’s history. They spread across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan for two months before firefighters got things under control. Nearly 1.5 million acres were consumed, with the cost reaching over $3.5 billion. While nobody died directly due to the flames, two evacuating Fort McMurray residents were killed when their SUV crashed into a tractor-trailer. The fire’s official cause has yet to be determined, but abnormally hot, dry air and record setting temperatures contributed to its rapid growth. While the blaze was under control as of July, it took months to be fully extinguished.

#7: Great Hinckley Fire
September 1894

The pine-forests and surrounding areas of Hinckley, Minnesota were in the midst of a two-month long drought in the summer of 1894. Several small fires ignited in Pine County, and since the ground was covered with branches and harvested trees, the flames spread rapidly. The town of Hinckley and several surrounding settlements, which made up over 200,000 acres, were completely destroyed. Although the exact number of fatalities is difficult to determine, there were over 400 victims. Thomas ‘Boston’ Corbett, the union soldier who killed President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, is thought to have died in the blaze, which remains one of the deadliest fires in Minnesota history.

#6: Black Saturday Bushfires
February 2009

Australia has fallen victim to many bushfires over the years, but the Black Saturday bushfires are by far the worst as they were the deadliest in the country’s history. Over 400 individual fires burned in the state of Victoria from February-March 2009, consuming over one million acres. An out of the ordinary heatwave, record setting temperatures and high winds contributed to the start and spread of these bushfires. Downed power lines, arson and lightning are just some of the many catalysts of the raging inferno. IN all, 173 people perished in the blaze, making it the most fatalities Australia has ever had from a bushfire.

#5: Great Fire of 1910
August 1910

Also known as The Big Burn, the Great Fire of 1910 burned across the U.S. states of Washington, Idaho and Montana during the summer of 1910. About three million acres were lost in the blaze, an area roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. The summer was tremendously dry, causing many small fires to break out until hurricane-force winds formed them into a raging inferno. The firestorm burned for two days and claimed 87 lives, many of which were firefighters. With smoke reportedly seen as far away as New York and Denver, it’s considered the biggest, though not most fatal, forest fire in American history.

#4: Great Fire of London
September 1666

Igniting in a bakery on Pudding Lane, this fire decimated four-fifths of medieval London. The technique used to battle fires during this period was to create firebreaks by means of demolition. This would form gaps in combustible material to deprive the fire of fuel and slow its advancement. However, Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bloodworth’s lack of decision-making meant that winds quickly fanned the flames into a firestorm that continued north into the city’s core. More than 13,000 houses were engulfed, leaving 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants homeless. Miraculously, casualties are believed to have been relatively low, with 6 officially recorded, though it’s likely that more perished.

#3: Great Fire of Rome
July 64 AD

This inferno is believed to have started in shops where combustible goods were kept, with winds contributing to its advancement. Differing accounts say Emperor Nero started it for any number of reasons, from madness to his hatred of the city’s aesthetics. While there’s no direct evidence that Nero’s to blame for the blaze, or that he fiddled while Rome burned, he did use the disaster to further his political agenda. Ultimately, hundreds of people lost their lives and 10 of Rome’s 14 districts were heavily damaged. It wasn’t the first time a Roman emperor was involved with an infamous fire, as – according to ancient reports – Caesar’s troops unintentionally burned down the Library of Alexandria back in 48 BC.

#2: Cloquet Fire
October 1918

The second fire on this list to devastate Minnesota; this one was ignited and spread thanks to sparks from a railroad and dry, hot conditions. The fire destroyed much of Carlton County, with the town of Cloquet being the hardest hit. It remains the state’s worst natural disaster in terms of how many people died with a 24-hour period. Over 450 people were killed in the fire, 38 communities were lost and 250,000 acres were charred. The total cost of property lost was close to $73 million, which is equal to roughly $1.15 billion today.

Before we unveil our number one pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- 2016 Gatlinburg Wildfires
November 2016

- 2007 Greek Forest Fires
June 2007

- 1825 Great Miramichi Fire
October 1825

#1: Peshtigo Fire
October 1871

Often overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which took place on the same day, the Peshtigo Fire is recorded history’s most fatal wildfire ever. An estimated 1,500 to 2,500 people lost their lives in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin when many small fires were fanned by high winds into a huge inferno. During this period, small fires were deliberately set to clear forestland for farming. But, when a cold front brought strong winds, a firestorm soon erupted. By the time it burned out, over 1.2 million acres of land was lost. Local records did not survive the blaze, making an exact casualty count difficult, but the victims are remembered with the Peshtigo Fire Museum and a memorial.
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