Safety and Survival

What Were the Biggest Wildfires in History?

wildfires destroy a forestWhether it is an act of nature or the result of human carelessness, these fires have decimated some of the world’s vast forests with alarming ferocity and tragic consequences (not in order).

1) The Great Fire of 1910

The Great Fire of 1910 was a wildfire that burned about three million acres in North Idaho and Western Montana, United States. The wildfires had even reached into some parts of Eastern Washington and Southeast British Columbia, on the border of US and Canada. The wildfires occurred during one weekend of August 20 to 21 when it started as numerous smaller fires which eventually combined and grew into a firestorm of unprecedented proportions.

Apart from destroying millions of acres of forest, the wildfire claimed 87 lives, most of them firefighters. The wildfire’s devastating impact served as a significant impetus in the development of early wildfire prevention and suppression strategies while raising awareness of nature conservation.

2) The Miramichi Fire (1825)

The Miramichi Fire was a massive wildfire that occurred during a dry summer spell in Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick in October 1825. The blazes whipped up into a devastating firestorm, destroying about three million acres of forests, killing at least 160 people, and leaving about 15,000 homeless.

The cause of the blaze is unknown, but the searing summer heat combined with fires used by the settlers probably contributed to this disaster. The wildfire is estimated to have decimated around one-fifth of New Brunswick’s forests.

3) The Peshtigo Fire (1871)

The Peshtigo Fire ripped across 1.2 million acres in Wisconsin and Michigan on October 8, 1871. The wildfire also burned parts of the Door Peninsula, and the flames became so intense that they even jumped across the waters of Green Bay.

The firestorm was sparked by railroad workers who were clearing forests for new railroad tracks during the oppressive summer weather.

The disaster killed an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 people, becoming one of the deadliest wildfires in history. Coincidentally, the Great Chicago fire also happened on the same day.

4) Black Friday Bushfires (1939)

The Black Friday Bushfires took place in the state of Victoria, Australia, on January 13, 1939. The soaring temperatures, combined with people’s carelessness with fire, contributed to the massive blaze.

The wildfires ravaged about five million acres of land, killed 71 people, obliterated over a dozen towns, and burned down 69 sawmills. The bushfires lasted throughout the entire summer that ash falls reached as far away as New Zealand. An estimated three-quarters of Victoria was affected by the disaster, while other Australian states also felt the effects of the fire and the sweltering heatwave.

The bushfires, which were eventually quenched by rainstorms on January 15, resulted in major changes in forest management.

5) Indonesian forest fires (1997 – 1998)

Experts say that the group of forest fires in Indonesia were probably among the two or three largest forest fire groups in the last two centuries, if not the largest.

These forest fires produced a thick spread of clouds of smoke and haze that they reached neighboring countries Malaysia and Singapore. The Malaysian fire and rescue department sent a team of firefighters to Indonesia under code name Operation Haze to ease the effects of the fire on the Malaysian economy.

Despite intermittent seasonal rains, the fires came back again as soon as the dry conditions returned. By the end of 1997, other countries – Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka – had also begun to feel the effects of the haze from the smoke brought by the Indonesian forest fires. The wildfires ravaged about eight million hectares of land. On top of that, millions of people suffered from air pollution.

6) Greek forest fires (2007)

Europe is no stranger to wildfires, either, and one of the worst wildfires that have hit the continent in recent years occurred in Greece. The series of forest fires took place in the country during the entire summer (June to September) in 2007. The combination of the oppressive heatwave, alleged arson, and strong winds fueled the inferno. About 3,000 blazes were recorded across the country.

The raging blaze destroyed about 670,000 acres of land. Also, the fires killed 84 people, destroyed over a thousand homes, and even crept dangerously close to the country’s historical sites such as those in the country’s capital Athens and Olympia.

7) Siberia wildfires (2019)

The Siberian wildfires may not grab as much global attention as the Amazon and Australian wildfires that also happened in the same year. However, the extent of the damage was quite great in this vast and remote Russian region. While wildfires in Russia are not uncommon, experts say that the unusually hot weather and dry ground, coupled with ferocious winds and scores of thunderstorms, contributed to the rapid and violent spread of the blaze.

So far, no human deaths have been recorded. However, the wildfires razed through about three million hectares of land.

8) Amazon forest fires (2019)

Amazon is (or used to be) the largest rainforest in the world and has been referred to as the “Earth’s lungs” – until it tragically suffered vast forest fires that took place between January and October 2019. While most wildfires in the Amazon were normally caused by natural factors, the 2019 forest fires are thought to have been chiefly caused by slash-and-burn practices by farmers to clear the forests for agriculture. The effects of climate change and unusually long dry season also contributed to the devastation.

A record rate of 73,000 separate fires has been detected – including 30,000 in August alone. The effects were devastating with clouds of smoke enveloping several Brazil in sudden darkness. Homes of the indigenous tribes and native wildlife were also destroyed by the fires.

The extent of the wildfires, as well as the environmental damage caused by them, quickly grabbed global headlines and raised renewed environmental awareness.

9) Australian bush fires (2019 – 2020)

2019 seems to be the year that the world burned – fires from Siberia, California, the Amazon, and Australia. But the Australian bushfires have been the most devastating in recent memory. Sure, the country has always had bushfires, but 2019 – 2020 is like nothing we have seen before.

The 2019 – 2020 Australian bushfires became a nationwide climate phenomenon that has also alerted many scientists, political figures, environmentalists, doctors, and pretty much everyone from the rest of the world.

Lightning strikes, accidents, record-breaking heat, and climate change sparked these fast-moving flames that eventually sent the entire country into red alert. Many people believed that arson also contributed to the wildfires. Although the fires may have started as early as June 2019, in the following September the fires began to grow out of control in several regions of the state of New South Wales. The rest of the Australian states had also begun to reel the effects of the fires, with varying degrees of devastation.

As of March 2020, approximately 46 million acres (about 18 million hectares) of land have been burned. Thirty-four people have been killed by the fires, while more than 3,500 homes have been destroyed. Probably the most heartbreaking effect of the wildfires is that the animal population has been dwindling. About one billion animals have been killed in the fires, and it is feared that about 113 animal species are at risk of becoming extinct.

At the time the article is published, the crisis is still ongoing in Australia, although all fires in states like New South Wales and Victoria have been contained.

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