What Are the Largest Wildfires in U.S. History?


Fueled by dry grass, harsh winds and unseasonably warm temperatures, the Smokehouse Creek fire in the Texas Panhandle has now burned more than 1.1 million acres, making it the largest fire in the state’s recorded history

At more than a million acres burned, it is also one of the largest wildfires recorded in the United States.

Almost all of the largest wildfires in U.S. history, including the Texas fire, are in fact not one fire with a single point of ignition but a combination of fires burning close together. They are what are known as fire complexes and are attacked by firefighters under a unified command.

Here is a look back at five of the largest wildfires ever recorded in the United States.

2020 — Northern California

The largest wildfire in California’s recorded history was a merger of nearly 40 fires, most started by lightning strikes during August in Mendocino County, a rural area about 90 miles north of San Francisco. It burned through 1,032,648 acres and caused the death of a firefighter. Overall, 2020 was a brutal year of wildfires in California, with the state experiencing about 10,000 separate fires. The wildfire season that year consumed 4.3 million acres and killed 33 people, according to scientists.

2004 — ALASKA

Lightning also caused this group of fires in August, during a time of dry weather. It consumed about 1.3 million acres in a sparsely populated area of eastern Alaska near the border with Canada. It was part of a record fire season in Alaska that burned more than 6.5 million acres. No deaths were reported.

A note, before we look further back into the past.

The acreage counts from fires of the past 40 years are significantly more accurate than from the era predating the use of satellite measurements, scientists say. Now, satellites, planes and drones are used to gauge the burn zone, with that data verified on the ground, said Virginia Iglesias, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the interim director of its Earth Lab.

“We’re very certain about what happened in the satellite era, quite certain about what happened in the historic era,” she said. “The degree of certainty decreases as we go further back in time.”

1910 — Northwest U.S.

According to historical reports, nearly three million acres were burned across Idaho, Montana and Washington in just two days — Aug. 20 and 21 — during a drought-ravaged summer. Hurricane-force winds helped wipe out small towns and killed more than 85 people. It also led to a strengthening of the U.S. Forest Service, which had been in existence for only five years at the time.

1871 — Michigan

An excessively dry summer, followed by unseasonably warm weather in the fall, led to a conflagration in Michigan that is believed to have destroyed about 2.5 million acres from Oct. 8 through Oct. 10, 1871. It damaged much of the Lake Michigan shoreline and leveled the cities of Holland and Manistee. On the same day, the Great Chicago fire began, and the Peshtigo fire erupted in Wisconsin.

1871 — Wisconsin

The intensely dry conditions fueled a blaze that quickly devoured Peshtigo, a community of about 2,000 people in northeastern Wisconsin. Fires were common in the region, because of logging and land clearing for farming and other industries, historians say.

But the Peshtigo fire would go on to scorch as much as 1.2 million to 1.5 million acres and kill about 1,500 people, including up to 800 people in Peshtigo. These estimates from the Wisconsin Historical Society also make it one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history.

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