10 Largest Wildfires in U.S. History

Explore the details of the top 10 largest wildfires in U.S. history, from the Dixie Fire in California to the Yarnell Fire in Arizona with this list from the WFCA.

Published:December 13, 2022
Edited:
April 24, 2024

Table of Contents

    Explore the details of the top 10 largest wildfires in U.S. history, from the Dixie Fire in California to the Yarnell Fire in Arizona with this list from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA).

    An orange cloud of smoke rising above a dark forest.
    Climate change is making wildfires larger and more destructive, but not all of the largest fires in the US have happened in recent history.

    There have been countless wildfires in United States’ history, and some of them turned into huge conflagrations that created almost unimaginable levels of destruction. While most of the biggest wildfires only destroyed acreage and structures, at least on paper, there are a few that left a considerable death toll behind – not to mention the incalculable losses of animals and vegetation.

    Here are the top 10 biggest wildfires in US history.

    Fire #10: Yarnell Hill Wildfire

    Date: June 28, 2013

    Location: Yarnell, Arizona

    Acres Burned: 8,400 acres

    Deaths: 19 people

    The Yarnell Fire in Arizona may not look very big compared to the Miramichi Fire in Maine or the August Complex in California, but it was both the biggest and the deadliest wildfire in the history of Arizona. It burned 8,400 acres and killed 19 firefighters. It was started by a lightning strike, but a months-long drought and persistent heat created the perfect conditions for the resulting fire to blaze out of control.1

    Fire #9: Mendocino Complex

    Date: July 2018

    Location: Colusa, Lake, Mendocino, and Glenn counties, California

    Acres Burned: 459,123 acres

    Deaths: 1 death

    The Mendocino Complex Fire was another grouping of smaller fires that came together to form a larger blaze. At the time, it was the biggest wildfire in California’s history. It started when a property owner in the northern part of the state was hammering a metal stake into the ground. A spark flew off and ignited the initial blaze.2 A total of 459,123 acres were burned, and 1 person lost their life. Like the Dixie Fire, it took 3 months to contain the Mendocino Complex.3

    Fire #8: Dixie Fire

    Date: July 2021

    Location: Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta, and Tehama counties, California

    Acres Burned: 963,309 acres

    Deaths: 1 death

    The Dixie Fire in Butte County, California is the state’s second-largest wildfire. Beginning on July 13th, 2021, it burned nearly 1 million acres and caused 1 death over the course of the next 3 months. The blaze was not fully contained until October 26th, 2021.4 Even then, it took the efforts of thousands of firefighters implementing all kinds of fire suppression techniques to wrest the Dixie Fire under control.5

    Fire #7: Peshtigo Fire

    Date: October 1871

    Location: Wisconsin

    Acres Burned: over 1,000,000 acres

    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 completely 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 people’s lives.6

    Fire #6: August Complex

    Date: August 2020

    Location: Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake, and Colusa counties, California

    Acres Burned: 1,032,648 acres

    Deaths: 1 person

    The August Complex fire was a merging of 37 separate fires at once in Mendocino County, California. It was the largest wildfire on record in the state’s history, but it was also just one of a long list of fires that plagued California through its long 2020 fire season. The low death toll is incredible considering the August Complex fire burned through a whopping 1,032,648 acres.7

    Fire #5: Smokehouse Creek Fire

    Date: February 2024

    Location: Texas

    Acres Burned: 1,078,086 acres

    Deaths: 33 people

    The Smokehouse Creek Fire burned over a million acres in the Texas panhandle over the course of nearly three weeks and claimed the lives of two individuals.13 

    The outline of burned trees against a dark sky with reddish clouds. On the left, a few bright spots show small fires in the distance.
    Good land management practices, such as prescribed burning, help to lessen the risk of highly destructive fires.

    Fire #4: Taylor Complex Fire

    Date: 2004

    Location: Alaska

    Acres Burned: 1,305,592

    Deaths: none

    The Taylor Complex Fire in Alaska was considered the biggest wildfire in the history of the United States from 2004, when it first conflagrated, all the way through 2007. It burned over 1.3 million acres, although no deaths were reported.8

    Fire #3: Great Michigan Fire

    Date: October 1871

    Location: Michigan

    Acres Burned: 2,500,000 acres

    Deaths: 250 people or less

    The Great Michigan Fire occurred alongside the Peshtigo Fire and the Great Chicago Fire. It is estimated to have burned through 2.5 million acres. While the official death toll is unknown, experts place it at less than 250 people.9

    Fire #2: The Great Fire Of 1910

    Date: Summer 1910

    Location: Idaho, Montana, and Washington

    Acres Burned: 3,000,000 acres

    Deaths: 87 people

    The Great Fire of 1910 is aptly named. Despite only lasting for two days, it did many lifetimes’ worth of damage. It burned through around 3,000,000 acres throughout Idaho, Montana, and Washington. In addition, the blaze killed a staggering 87 people. It’s considered one of the worst fires in US history.10

    Fire #1: 1825 Miramichi Fire

    Date: 1825

    Location: Maine

    Acres Burned: 3,000,000 acres

    Deaths: 160 people

    The biggest wildfire in recorded US history is the 1825 Miramichi Fire. It blazed through an estimated 3,000,000 million acres and claimed at least 160 lives. That makes it not just one of the most widespread fires, but also one of the deadliest.11 Most of the burning took place in New Brunswick, Canada, but the flames also spread down into the state of Maine. People and animals were reported to be fleeing the fire down the Miramichi River, which also shares its name with a city in Canada where the fire did the most damage.12

    Sources

    1.  National Centers for Environmental Information, “On This Day: Remembering the Yarnell Hill Wildfire.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    2. NBC News, “Hammer spark caused largest wildland fire in California history, investigators say.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    3. CAL FIRE, “Ranch Fire (Mendocino Complex) Incident.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    4. National Park Service, “Dixie Fire.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    5. The New York Times, “Inside The Massive And Costly Fight To Contain The Dixie Fire.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    6. Fire Rescue 1, “Peshtigo Fire: The deadliest wildfire in U.S. history.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    7. CAL FIRE, “Top 20 Largest California Wildfires.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    8. National Interagency Fire Center, “Fire Information – Wildland Fire Statistics.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    9. WTVB, “150 years ago: “Great Fires” in Michigan took place while Chicago was also burning in 1871.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    10. Treehugger, “10 of the Worst Wildfires in U.S. History.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    11. FAO.org, “Unasylva – Vol. 5, No. 2 – “Wild Lands” Conservation – Forest Fire Danger Measurement in the United States.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    12. Treehugger, “10 of the Worst Wildfires in U.S. History.” Accessed November 30, 2022.
    13. CBS News, “2nd Person Dies as Wildfires Sweep Across Texas Panhandle.” Accessed March 18, 2024

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