Deadliest Wildfires in U.S. History
August 22, 2023
Review the top 10 deadliest wildfires in U.S. history, in the wake of the Lahaina Fire in Maui, Hawaii, with this list from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA).
The Lahaina Town wildfire on the Hawaiian island of Maui is considered to be the deadliest in United States history in more than a century. As of August 21, 2023, the death toll sits at 114. Unfortunately, this number is expected to rise as the search for victims continues. Roughly 850 individuals are still missing, and the mayor of Maui has asked for those DNA samples to aid in the identification process. 16 As it stands now, the Lahaina Fire is the fifth deadliest wildfire to ever happen in U.S. history.
Four wildfires broke out on the island of Maui on August 8, 2023. The Pulehu/Kihei fire was declared as 100% contained on August 12, 2023. Continuing to burn are Olinda Fire at 1,081 acres and Kula Fire at 202 acres. The largest and most destructive fire of the four is the Lahaina Fire, 90% contained at 2,170 acres. Sadly, the historic town of Lahaina Town is ash, creating a difficult recovery process for first responders.14
As the entire nation’s attention is fixed on Hawaii and the island of Maui, filled with a sense of loss and heartbreak for the individuals and their families on Maui, our thoughts inevitably turn to other catastrophic fires that have left their mark in our country’s past.
Here are the top 10 deadliest wildfires in US history, arranged in ascending order of fatalities (with the exception of the Lahaina Fire):
#10: Griffith Park
Date: October 1933
Acres Burned: 47
This fire sparked while several men were clearing brush as a part of the Los Angeles County welfare relief program. It began at the bottom of the slope and favorable fire conditions quickly pushed it up and caused it to climb upward. All casualties of this fire were firefighters working to stop the blaze.12
#9: 2020 Fire Siege
Date: August 2020
Acres Burned: 4.2 million
2020 was a year filled with unprecedented and devastating wildfires. Late in August, a series of wildfires ignited due to a barrage of lightning strikes, resulting in a prolonged four-month blaze. The scale and intensity of these fires were truly unforgettable and had a profound impact.11
#8: 2017 October Fire Siege
Date: October 2017
Acres Burned: 245,000
Several fires, including the Tubbs Fire, are included under the name “2017 October Fire Siege.” These fires were started by a combination of PG&E-owned power lines. The state’s insurance commissioner put insured losses from the tragedy at $9 billion.10
#7: Yacolt Burn
Date: September 1902
Location: Washington and Oregon
Acres Burned: 238,920
The Yacolt Burn was the first large forest fire ever recorded in Washington’s history. Dry temperatures lead to the start of multiple fires, but it was the combination of strong gusty winds that gave rise to the Yacolt Burn fire.9
#6: Camp Fire
Date: November 2018
Acres Burned: 153,336
A faulty electric transmission line was responsible for igniting this fire in Paradise and Concow, leading to the destruction of 95% of the structures in each town. Almost 5,600 firefighters were deployed at the height of this fire. This is California’s deadliest wildfire to date.8
#5: Great Fire of 1910
Date: Summer 1910
Acres Burned: 3,000,000
Deaths: 87 people
The Great Fire of 1910 is aptly named. Despite only lasting for 2 days, it did many lifetimes’ worth of damage. It burned around 3,000,000 acres throughout Idaho, Montana, and Washington. The blaze claimed an astonishing 87 lives. It’s considered one of the worst fires in US history.2
#4: Thumb Fire
Date: September 1881
Acres Burned: 1,000,000
This fire was also known as The Great Fire Of 1881. It consumed over 1,500 dwellings and stranded more than 14,000 people.7 The American Red Cross was founded earlier in 1881, making the Thumb Fire its first official disaster relief effort.6
#3: Great Hinckley Fire
Date: September 1894
Acres Burned: 350,000
In the years leading up to the Great Hinckley Fire, the area’s soil and vegetation began drying out due to drought conditions. The day the fire began, wind gusts created a tornado of flames reaching heights of 200 feet. Residents in the area took shelter in wells, the Skunk Lake, and even gravel pits. Temperatures at the core of the fire were over 1,600-degree Fahrenheit.4
#2: Cloquet and Moose Lake Fires
Date: October 1918
Location: Minnesota and Wisconsin
Acres Burned: 250,000
The Cloquet-Moose Lake fire was a massive forest fire that caused widespread devastation. It began near Sturgeon Lake and quickly spread due to strong winds and dry conditions. The fire tragically claimed the lives of over 450 people, leaving many more injured and thousands homeless. It destroyed 38 towns and villages, along with numerous homes, barns, and schools.3 The estimated cost of the damage was close to $73 million, over a billion in today’s economy.15
#1: Peshtigo Fire
Date: October 1871
Acres Burned: over 1,000,000
Deaths: over 1,500 people
Not many people know about the Peshtigo Fire of 1871. That’s because this wildfire happened at the same time as the more infamous Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed the city. The reality is that the Peshtigo Fire was both larger and deadlier. In fact, it is counted as the deadliest fire in US history because it claimed over 1,500 lives.1
Check out our “10 Largest Wildfires in U.S. History” list next.
- Fire Rescue 1, “Peshtigo Fire: The deadliest wildfire in U.S. history.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- Treehugger, “10 of the Worst Wildfires in U.S. History.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- History, “Fire rages in Minnesota.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- Department of Natural Resources, “The Great Hinckley Fire-1894.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- NPR, “Thumb Fire, 1881
- Red Cross, “Founder Clara Barton.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- UMich, “Fires Ravaged Michigan’s thumb in 1881.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- CALFIRE, “Remembering the Camp Fire.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- Columbia River, “1902 Yacolt Burn, Washington.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- Reuters, “Probe Finds PG&E powers lines sparked deadly 2017 California Wildfires.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- GVWire, “California’s 2020 Fire Siege: Wildfires by the Numbers.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- Los Angeles Almanac, “Griffith Park Fire Tragedy, 1933.” Accessed August 16, 2023.
- CNN, “Role of Power Lines Scrutinized in Maui Wildfires that Left at Least 106 People Dead.” Accessed August 8, 2023.
- Maui County, “8/20 Maui County Wildfire Disaster Update.” Accessed August 21, 2023.
- Weather, “Moose Lake and Cloquet Fires of October 1918.” Accessed August 21, 2023.
- The Hill, “850 people are missing after Maui Wildfires: Hawaii County Mayor.” Accessed August 21, 2023.