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The Top 10 Worst Wildfires in American History

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree from UNC Charlotte in 2018. He specializes in American History.

From the Thumb Fire of 1881 to the California Wildfires of 2020, this article ranks the 10 worst wildfires in American history.

From the Thumb Fire of 1881 to the California Wildfires of 2020, this article ranks the 10 worst wildfires in American history.

What Was the Worst Wildfire in American History?

Throughout American history, a number of incredibly powerful wildfires have wreaked havoc on the country’s numerous forests, cities, and towns. Of the fires that have appeared so far (as of 2022), several stand out above the rest regarding their overall size, power, and devastation.

From the Thumb Fire of 1881 to the 2020 California Wildfires, this work examines and ranks the 10 worst wildfires in American history. It provides a brief overview of each event, followed by a discussion of the fire’s economic and environmental impact. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding (and appreciation) of these remarkable infernos will accompany readers following their completion of this work.

The 10 Worst Wildfires Ranked

10. The Thumb Fire of 1881
9. Peshtigo Fire of 1871
8. 2017 Montana Wildfires
7. Taylor Complex Fire
6. 2008 California Wildfires
5. The Great Michigan Fire of 1871
4. The Great Fire of 1910
3. 2011 Texas Wildfire
2. Miramichi Fire of 1825
1. 2020 California Wildfires

The Thumb Fire of 1881.

The Thumb Fire of 1881.

10. Thumb Fire of 1881

  • Date(s) of Event: September 1881
  • Area(s) Affected: Central Michigan
  • Total Size: 1 Million+ Acres

The Thumb Fire of 1881 (also known as the “Great Thumb Fire,” “The Great Forest Fire of 1881,” or the “Huron Fire”) was a massive wildfire that began on 5 September 1881 near the “Thumb” region of Michigan. Resulting from a combination of drought conditions, hurricane-force winds, an extreme heat wave, and ecological damage caused by logging techniques from that era, the fire first ignited around the town of Bad Axe.

It spread rapidly to the neighboring towns of Huron City and Grindstone City, respectively. Within days, almost all Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac, and Lapeer counties were engulfed with flames, resulting in widespread (catastrophic) damage to the region.

Before the fire could be contained, soot and ash were so intense that sunlight was obscured for many areas along the East Coast of the United States, with numerous cities across New England reporting a yellow hue to the sky. In what came to be known as “Yellow Tuesday” and “Yellow Day” for the region, some locations even reported twilight beginning at noon due to the fire's immense smoke and ash being pushed into the atmosphere.

Impact of the Thumb Fire of 1881

The Thumb Fire of 1881 is regularly cited as one of the worst wildfires in American history and resulted in approximately $2,347,000 in damage ($65,902,141 when adjusted for inflation). In total, the blaze is believed to have affected over a million acres of land and killed 282 people before it could be contained.

In addition, the American Red Cross reported that approximately 14,000+ individuals were displaced by the wildfire, forcing them to rely exclusively on public charity funds for survival. Likewise, it is estimated that the devastation also consumed over 2,000 barns, homes, schools, and buildings.

In response to the Thumb Fire, several firefighting plans (and protocols) were established by governmental agencies to help prevent such a disaster from occurring again. Likewise, a number of timber barons (who suffered tremendous losses from the fire) worked to establish the Northern Forest and Protection Association, an association that the U.S. Forest Service later replaced.

Despite their best efforts, future fires (as we shall see) would continue to be problematic for the United States in the decades that followed.

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

9. Peshtigo Fire of 1871

  • Date(s) of Event: October 1871
  • Area(s) Affected: Northeastern Wisconsin
  • Total Size: 1.2 to 1.5 Million Acres
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The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 was a massive wildfire in Northeastern Wisconsin in October 1871. Affecting large swathes of the Door Peninsula and Peshtigo regions (hence its name), the fire is believed to have resulted from “slash-and-burn” practices at the time (which involved farmers clearing forests through the use of controlled burns).

With the arrival of a major cold front, however, strong winds helped to fan these smaller fires out of control, resulting in a massive firestorm with flames exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Combined with the drought-like conditions already affecting the area, the fire quickly reached epic proportions, resulting in tremendous losses.

Impact of the Peshtigo Fire of 1871

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 was incredibly devastating in size and impact. Regularly cited by historians as the deadliest wildfire in recorded history, the Peshtigo Fire is believed to have killed 1,500 to 2,500 people before it could finally be contained. Affecting an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million acres of land, the fire also devastated local plant and animal life, resulting in the loss of 2+ million trees, saplings, and animals.

Scholars currently estimate that the wildfire was responsible for a total of 5 million dollars worth of damage for its time (approximately $113 million when adjusted for inflation). When examined alongside the fire’s massive displacement of individuals (estimated to be in the thousands), it is easy to see why the Peshtigo Fire of 1871 was one of the worst disasters in American history.

2017 Montana Wildfires.

2017 Montana Wildfires.

8. 2017 Montana Wildfires

  • Date(s) of Event: June to September 2017
  • Area(s) Affected: Montana
  • Total Size: 1.3 to 1.4 Million Acres

The 2017 Montana Wildfires refer to approximately 21 different fires that occurred in Montana between June and September 2017. Believed to have originated from a single lightning strike, the fire that ensued was propelled forward by the region’s drought-like conditions and extreme temperatures that had been affecting Montana for months. Within days, the fires quickly reached epic proportions as the absence of rain and precipitation (combined with strong winds) helped to drive the fires onward.

Realizing the danger presented by these fires, Montana’s Governor quickly declared a state of emergency, evacuating thousands of individuals from their homes. Despite their best efforts, firefighters and first-responders could not effectively contain the wildfires on their own. It wasn’t until late September (when the rain and snow finally returned) that the fires were extinguished with Mother Nature's help (bmefire.com).

Impact of the 2017 Montana Wildfires

The 2017 Montana Wildfires were incredibly devastating regarding their size and magnitude. In total, the fires are believed to have consumed nearly 1.3 to 1.4 million acres of land, resulting in the loss of 270,000 acres of grazing land, 16 primary structures, and countless homes.

The devastation created by the fires resulted in approximately 380 million dollars worth of damage. This figure includes the money spent on fire-suppression efforts, as thousands of firefighters and National Guard members were dispatched to battle the flames.

Despite its high cost, however, the fires were responsible for only two fatalities, thanks to the quick evacuation efforts implemented. Nevertheless, the combined effects (and costs) of these fires would prove to be devastating for Montana in the years that followed (bmefire.com). For these reasons, the 2017 Montana Wildfires were truly one of the worst disasters in American history.

Taylor Complex Fire.

Taylor Complex Fire.

7. Taylor Complex Fire

  • Date(s) of Event: May to August 2004
  • Area(s) Affected: Central and Eastern Alaska
  • Total Size: 1.7 Million Acres

The Taylor Complex Fire refers to a massive wildfire in central and eastern Alaska between May and August 2004. Following in the footsteps of an unusually warm spring, the Taylor Complex Fire is believed to have originated from multiple lightning strikes and was part of a larger array of fires known collectively as the “2004 Alaska Wildfires.”

Aided by strong winds and higher temperatures (which only added to its overall fuel), the fire quickly spread to neighboring areas, culminating in a massive inferno that wreaked havoc on the region’s wildlife and human populations. Sending smoke high into the atmosphere, portions of the smoke were seen as far south as Louisiana (ncei.noaa.gov), as the massive blaze emitted unprecedented levels of smoke, soot, and debris.

Facing a losing battle with the blaze, firefighters could not control the Taylor Complex Fire until August 2004, when much-need precipitation doused the region, extinguishing the inferno before it could spread even further.

Impact of the Taylor Complex Fire

Regarding the Taylor Complex Fire’s impact and devastation, it is currently estimated that the fire destroyed approximately 1.7 million acres of land before it was extinguished in August 2004. To date, it remains unclear how much damage was inflicted by the fire (in terms of its overall costs). Nevertheless, the ecological damage (alone) is believed to have exceeded 100 million dollars.

In terms of its environmental impact, the Taylor Complex Fire proved to be catastrophic, as the carbon emissions produced by the fire contributed to nearly 41 percent of the total emissions produced in the United States for that year alone. Likewise, much of the region remained uninhabitable for a variety of species due to the fire’s destruction of soil and tree canopies, leaving the area prone to erosion and devastating landslides in the years that followed.

Thus, when taken together, it is not difficult to see why the Taylor Complex Fire was one of the worst wildfires recorded in American history.

2008 California Wildfires.

2008 California Wildfires.

6. 2008 California Wildfires

  • Date(s) of Event: April to November 2008
  • Area(s) Affected: Northern and Southern California
  • Total Size: 1.6 Million Acres

The 2008 California Wildfires refers to a series of 6,255 different fires across California during the summer of 2008. Believed to have started from various lightning strikes that occurred in the area, the combination of high winds and drought-like conditions helped to accelerate the spread of the fires to epic proportions, resulting in one of the largest outbreaks in American history.

With temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit in much of Central California (in July and August), the combination of heat and smoke resulted in hazy conditions for much of California. With very little rainfall occurring during these hot months, firefighters were unable to contain the spread of the fires until November of that year (following the arrival of winter rains and the absence of strong summer winds).

Impact of the 2008 California Wildfires

To date, the 2008 California Wildfires are regularly cited by experts as one of the most devastating fire outbreaks in history. In total, approximately 1.6 million acres of land (including forests and woodlands) were destroyed by the fires. Likewise, the infernos were responsible for the death of 32 individuals (including 13 firefighters), with an additional 93 people seriously injured (burned).

Regarding the overall health impact of the 2008 California Wildfires, experts currently believe that the fires contributed significantly to a rise in respiratory illnesses (such as asthma) across the state of California, as the poor air quality (caused by the intense smoke) greatly impaired the immune response of individuals caught in these conditions.

Regarding costs, it is currently estimated that the fires were responsible for nearly 651.5 million dollars worth of damage across the state. For these reasons, the 2008 California Wildfires were truly one of the worst natural disasters in modern American history.

Great Michigan Fire of 1871.

Great Michigan Fire of 1871.

5. The Great Michigan Fire of 1871

  • Date(s) of Event: October 1871
  • Area(s) Affected: Southeastern Michigan
  • Total Size: 2.5 Million Acres

The Great Michigan Fire of 1871 refers to a series of forest fires that affected Southeastern Michigan in October 1871. Believed to have originated from lighting and meteor showers during this time, the fires quickly spread into neighboring towns, cities, and villages due to strong winds and dry conditions.

With large swathes of Southern Michigan covered in debris from decades of logging operations (that left massive quantities of unused wood, bark, and dried-up vegetation behind), the fires were provided with ample fuel to burn through, resulting in a massive wall of flames that spread rapidly due to the gale force winds that drove them.

With no coordinated response in place, the flames continued unabated for several weeks until rainfall and the absence of wind finally helped to extinguish the flames entirely. Occurring simultaneously with the Great Chicago Fire, Peshtigo Fire, and Port Huron Fire, the devastation caused by these wildfires was among the worst in American history.

Impact of the Great Michigan Fire of 1871

Regarding its overall impact, the Great Michigan Fire of 1871 was truly devastating in terms of the overall damage, costs, and deaths inflicted by the fires. Experts currently believe that approximately 2.5 million acres of land were destroyed by the inferno (including all of Menominee County). In its wake, thousands of homes, buildings, and barns were engulfed by the flames, resulting in extensive property loss, the death of livestock, and homelessness on a scale never before seen.

In total, more than 500 individuals were killed by the fire; however, experts are quick to point out that the actual number is probably far higher due to the thousands of lumberjacks and salesmen that were spread across the state during this period (making it impossible to know the actual death rate).

When examined alongside the total destruction that occurred across Michigan’s forests and woodlands, the Great Michigan Fire of 1871 was truly one of the worst conflagrations to occur in American history.

Great Fire of 1910.

Great Fire of 1910.

4. The Great Fire of 1910

  • Date(s) of Event: August 1910
  • Area(s) Affected: Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia
  • Total Size: 3+ Million Acres

The Great Fire of 1910 (also known as the “Big Blowup,” “Big Burn,” or the “Devil’s Broom Fire”) was a devastating wildfire that occurred in the Northwest region of the United States in August 1910. Happening across parts of Northern Idaho, Western Montana, Eastern Washington, and Southeast British Columbia, the fire is believed to have resulted from dry conditions, an intense summer heat wave, and sparks from both trains and lightning strikes.

Comprised of 3,000 different fires, the smaller flames eventually combined to create a massive firestorm that swept across the region over two days, wreaking havoc on the area’s forests, towns, and cities. Fed by hurricane-force winds afflicting the area, the flames produced smoke clouds seen as far away as Watertown, New York, resulting in hazy conditions within a 500-mile radius of the inferno. Fortunately, the blaze was finally contained (and extinguished) after the arrival of a cold front that brought steady rain and snow to the region.

Impact of the Great Fire of 1910

Regarding its overall impact, the Great Fire of 1910 was devastating in terms of the overall death and destruction that followed in its wake. In total, approximately 3 million acres of land were destroyed in the firestorm at the cost of nearly 1 million dollars (29 million dollars when adjusted for inflation), with an additional billion dollars worth of timber that was also lost.

Engulfing entire towns and forests, thousands of homes, businesses, and farms were lost to the Great Fire, as the burn area was comparable to the size of Connecticut. Regarding its overall fatalities, approximately 86 people are believed to have died from the fire (most of these being firefighters and Forest Service Rangers).

Following its destruction, the Great Fire resulted in many sweeping changes for the U.S. Forest Service, including a newfound policy to extinguish smaller fires in a timely (and more aggressive) manner. The Great Fire of 1910 continues to be cited as one of the worst wildfires in American history, as its devastation was unprecedented and unparalleled.

2011 Texas Wildfires.

2011 Texas Wildfires.

3. 2011 Texas Wildfires

  • Date(s) of Event: April to September 2011
  • Area(s) Affected: Central and Southern Texas
  • Total Size: 4+ Million Acres

The 2011 Texas Wildfires refer to a series of 31,453 fires that occurred in Central and Southern Texas between April and September 2011. Setting a state record for the number of active fires occurring simultaneously, the disaster is believed to have originated from a combination of La Nina weather patterns, extreme drought conditions, strong winds, and low humidity.

With many of the fires beginning from lightning strikes and downed electrical wires (caused by bad weather), the blazes quickly spread to surrounding areas due to 30+ mph winds that were dominant for much of the wildfire season. With the help of firefighters from forty-three different states (and through federal assistance), however, the fires were eventually contained by September and October of that year as the arrival of rainfall and favorable weather conditions helped to extinguish many of the larger fires burning across the state.

Impact of the 2011 Texas Wildfires

Regarding the overall impact of the 2011 Texas Wildfires, it is currently estimated that approximately 4+ million acres of land (including large portions of forests and woodlands in the region) were completely destroyed by the infernos. In one day alone, nearly 2,947 homes were destroyed, with an additional 1,939 structures seriously damaged by the blazes.

In total, it is believed that the fires were responsible for nearly 513.9 million dollars worth of structural damage, along with an additional loss of 1.6 billion dollars worth of timber (undermining the Texas economy for several years to come). Regarding deaths, 10 individuals were killed by the wildfires, with an additional 62 people seriously hurt (burned).

To date, the 2011 Texas Wildfires continue to be cited as the most catastrophic fire in Texas history and one of the worst natural disasters to have occurred in the United States.

Miramichi Fire.

Miramichi Fire.

2. Miramichi Fire

  • Date(s) of Event: October 1825
  • Area(s) Affected: New Brunswick and Maine
  • Total Size: 3+ Million Acres

The Miramichi Fire (also known as the “Great Miramichi Fire,” the “1825 Dee,” or the “Great Fire of Miramichi”) was a massive forest fire that began in New Brunswick in October 1825. Although very little is currently known (or understood) about the fire’s origins, scholars believe an overabundance of spruce budworms, excessive heat, drought conditions, and bush fires (caused by local loggers) may have been responsible for the inferno that ensued.

Aided by strong winds, the blaze quickly became a firestorm that spread across Newcastle, New Brunswick, and Northern Maine within days. Destroying everything (and everyone) in its path, many individuals attempted to escape the inferno by taking refuge in the Miramichi River. Despite their best efforts, however, entire towns and communities were incinerated by the blaze before favorable weather conditions (rain and snow) eventually prevailed against the disaster.

Impact of the Miramichi Fire

Regarding the Miramichi Fire’s impact and devastation, it is impossible to calculate the total damage of the fire given the lack of historical documents and statistics available from this time period. Nevertheless, scholars currently estimate that the Miramichi Fire destroyed over 3+ million acres of land and incinerated over a third of the homes and buildings within its 16,000 square kilometers of damage.

Moreover, the fire was also responsible for destroying a fifth of the forests in both Northern Maine and New Brunswick. It killed between 160 to 3,000 individuals (along with countless numbers of animals and livestock). Thus, given its size, scope, and devastation, it is not difficult to see why the Miramichi Fire of 1825 was one of the most devastating wildfires in history.

2020 California Wildfires.

2020 California Wildfires.

1. 2020 California Wildfires

  • Date(s) of Event: February to December 2020
  • Area(s) Affected: California and Southern Oregon
  • Total Size: 4.4 Million Acres

Topping our list of devastating wildfires is the infamous 2020 California Wildfires that occurred between February and December 2020. Affecting much of California and Southern Oregon, this record-setting wildfire season involved the simultaneous burning of 9,917 different fires and was believed to have originated from a combination of high temperatures, katabatic winds, and low humidity.

Caused by arsonists and various lightning strikes, these smaller fires quickly spread across the state, engulfing entire communities, forests, and towns. Utilizing 3,400+ firefighters (along with countless volunteers from outside the state), firefighting personnel were able to finally contain most of the fires by December of that year.

Impact of the 2020 California Wildfires

Regarding its overall impact, the 2020 California Wildfires were truly devastating in terms of their cost, destruction, and overall fatalities. To date, it is currently estimated that the 2020 California Wildfires were responsible for nearly 12.079 billion dollars worth of damage across the state, with property damage accounting for the majority of these losses.

Regarding areas affected, approximately 4.4 million acres were consumed by the fire, resulting in 33 deaths and 37 non-fatal injuries. When examined alongside the tremendous health impact of the fires (resulting from prolonged exposure to smoke across much of the state), it is easy to see why the 2020 California Wildfires were the most devastating wildfires to have occurred in American history; a feat that will likely remain for the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

Articles/Books:

  • Arnold, Rory. “The Miramichi Fire.” Earth.com. Accessed: 5 July 2022. Web.
  • “California’s 2020 Wildfire Season.” University of California – Davis. Accessed: 6 July 2022. Web.
  • “California Fire Database.” Cal Fire. Accessed: 3 July 2022. Web.
  • “National Weather Service Fire Database.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed: 3 July 2022. Web.
  • “The 2011 Texas Wildfires.” Texas A&M Forest Service. Accessed: 2 July 2022. Web.

Images/Photographs:

  • Pixabay Commons.
  • Unsplash Commons.
  • Wikimedia Commons.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Larry Slawson

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