Maui's wildfires are among the deadliest on record in the U.S. Here are some others
Updated August 15, 2023 at 10:31 PM ET
The wildfires that tore through western Maui last week have already earned the tragic distinction of being among the deadliest in modern U.S. history — and the death toll is only expected to climb as recovery efforts continue.
Hawaii officials confirmed 101 fatalities as of Tuesday, and have warned that number is likely to keep rising.
"This is the largest natural disaster we've ever experienced," Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said over the weekend. "It's going to also be a natural disaster that's going to take an incredible amount of time to recover from."
Last week's wildfires — which destroyed the historic town of Lahaina and left thousands of residents without homes — also constitute the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. They surpass the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., which killed 85 people.
The Maui fire now ranks among the top 10 deadliest U.S. wildfires on record since 1871, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a global nonprofit focused on eliminating loss due to fire hazards. Four of them — Maui included — have happened in the years since 2017.
Climate change is increasing the risk of major wildfires across the U.S., and more people are moving to fire-prone areas without realizing it, as NPR has reported.
Many of the most devastating wildfires in U.S. history ravaged western states. But others — including the 1871 Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest on record — have struck elsewhere, including in the Midwest.
Here's a look at some of the other tragedies on that list, and some lessons learned.
Peshtigo Fire, 1871
The Peshtigo fire scorched about 1.5 million acres, leaving only one building standing. It killed at least 1,152 people, injured about 1,500 and left another 3,000 homeless, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
At the time, Peshtigo was home many immigrants working in the lumbering and railroad industries — and a lot of wood, according to the Peshtigo Fire Museum.
It boasted the world's largest woodenware factory, as well as one of the country's largest sawmills. The town was surrounded by pine forests, most of its structures and sidewalks were made of wood and the streets were covered in sawdust from the factory.
Lumberjacks and railroad construction crews regularly set fires in the area to clear debris, the museum explains, so it wasn't unusual for the air to be filled with smoke (or for ships to navigate by compass during the day, or for schools to close, or for people to get sick).
"The citizens of Peshtigo had become used to the smell of ashes and thought nothing amiss when they retired on the night of October 8, 1871," reads the historical society's website. "Suddenly 'all hell rode into town on the back of a wind.' "
As the fire spread, some people hid in water wells while others rushed to the river, as NPR has reported. Of those that survived the initial fire, many died of drowning and hypothermia.
The National Weather Service attributes the fire to several factors, including prolonged drought, a strong autumn storm system, logging and clearing of land for agriculture and the "ignorance and indifference of the population," as timber was often discarded with little regard for its flammability.
The tragedy, it adds, was an important wake-up call about land use practices of the time.
Thumb Fire, 1881
The Thumb Fire swept through central Michigan in September 1881. It burned a million acres in Sanilac and Huron Counties alone, according to a historical marker near Bay Port.
"Small fires were burning in the forests of the Thumb, tinder-dry after a long, hot summer, when a gale swept in from the southwest on Sept. 5, 1881," it reads. "Fanned into an inferno, the fires raged for three days."
The University of Michigan says the fire killed at least 300 people (NFPA puts the death toll at 282), destroyed 1,521 dwellings and left more than 14,000 people dependent on public aid.
Many residents were left either temporarily or permanently blinded by the smoke and flying ashes that "traveled faster than a whirlwind and blotted out the sun for days," according to Thumbwind.com. It adds that yellow smoke made its way east, where it darkened the skies over all six New England states.
The American Red Cross, which had been founded earlier that year, collected funds and clothing to support victims — marking its first-ever official disaster relief effort.
Great Fire, 1910
The Great Fire of 1910 was a series of forest fires that burned through Idaho, Montana and Washington between April and August, culminating in the so-called "Big Blowup."
Hurricane-force winds arrived on Aug. 20, whipping the small fires into flames hundreds of feet high. Forester Edward Stahl described them as being "fanned by a tornado wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell."
The fire lasted for two days and two nights, devastating more than 3 million acres of timberland in the Northern Rockies. The exact death toll varies, with the U.S. Forest Service putting it at 86, saying most were firefighters on the front lines.
Notably, the Forest Service had only existed for five years by this point. The National Forest Foundation says the fire "left not only scars on the land, but also lasting and fervent opinions about how forests and wildfire should be managed."
Cloquet and Moose Lake Fires, 1918
The Cloquet and Moose Lake fires of 1918 (which were actually made up of 50 blazes) remain one of the deadliest natural disasters in Minnesota history.
Records from the National Weather Service show Northeast Minnesota was experiencing its "driest season in 48 years" when sparks from a passing train, fueled by gusty winds, ignited fires that lasted for several days.
The fire consumed approximately 1,500 square miles and killed more than 450 people, according to the Minnesota Digital Library.
Nearly half of the victims were from the Moose Lake area. Many of them died trying to escape in cars or suffocating in root cellars and wells, as MPR News reported on the 100th anniversary.
Natalie Frohrip, the vice president of the Moose Lake Area Historical Society, told the station that her mother-in-law, a teenager at the time, had survived the fire by wading into the lake.
"She said that when she had been in Sunday school, she had learned that when the end of the world came, the stars were going to fall out of the sky," Frohrip said. "And so when they came down the hill and saw all the sparks, she was sure this was going to be the end."
Griffith Park Fire, 1933
The Griffith Park fire was once the deadliest fire in California history, killing 29 people in 1933. But it burned a relatively small 47 acres and damaged no property.
All of the victims of the fire were civilians who had been doing cleanup and assistance work in the Los Angeles park for 40 cents an hour through a Depression-era government program, as member station KQED reported.
There were 3,784 workers in the park when a brush fire broke out on the afternoon of Oct. 3.
"Accounts differ on whether workers were ordered by their foremen to head down into Mineral Wells Canyon to fight the fire or whether they were simply asked to help put out the flames," KQED reported. "Either way, into the canyon they went, with only shovels, their hands and the earth at their feet to work with."
The fire department had arrived relatively quickly but was reportedly overwhelmed by the thousands of amateurs crowding the scene. Then a sudden change in the winds sent the fire up the canyon, killing 29 workers of thermal burns and injuring more than 150 others.
Reporter Caroline Walker wrote in the Oct. 4, 1933 issue of the Los Angeles Herald-Express of the men, that "in their hearts a little candle of hope had been burning again because they had a chance to earn a little money."
"It was only a brush fire that they were asked to extinguish. It was the sort that skilled fireworkers know how to handle. But the men in the park weren't fire fighters. They did not know that canyons become flutes in a brush fire, or that flames travel with such deadly swiftness over grass and trees grown brittle with the summer drought. It was work. That was all that mattered."
Camp Fire, 2018
The Camp Fire broke out in Northern California in November 2018, sweeping through the towns of Paradise and Concow — which each lost about 95% of their structures.
It spanned an area of 153,336 acres, and eventually killed at least 85 people, injuring 12 civilians and five firefighters.
A yearlong investigation found that the fire had been ignited by outdated power lines. Pacific Gas & Electric pleaded guilty in 2020 to 84 separate counts of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of unlawfully starting a fire.
PG&E has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires, which have killed more than 100 people since 2017.
California Fire Siege, 2020
More than 8,600 wildfires burned across California in 2020, scorching some 4.2 million acres — a state record — and killing 33 people.
"The 2020 California wildfire year was characterized by record-setting wildfires that burned across the state of California as measured during the modern era of wildfire management and record keeping," according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The years 2020 and 2021 together burned more area than the previous seven years combined, according to the University of California, Davis.
Officials described 2020 as a "fire siege" because it saw 18 of the state's 20 most destructive fires on record, as Scientific American explains.
Among them was the August Complex fire, which officials called the first "gigafire" since it burned more than 1 million acres. It was ignited by lightning in mid-August and burned for four months, scorching an area larger than the state of Rhode Island to become the largest fire in California history.
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