The recent Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise was the deadliest wildfire in California history, with a staggering death toll of 85 and many more injured. It is the deadliest and most destructive in a long line of recent California fires. However, it is far from being the deadliest fire in United States history. Hopefully with modern improvements to fire-protection technology—such as the Vulcan Vent and many other developments—and improved techniques of fire response and urban planning, fatalities from fires will never reach the astonishing numbers seen in this list. These are the deadliest fires in U.S. history.
1. Peshtigo Fire
The deadliest fire in U.S. history occurred in Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 1871 and has been largely forgotten. Its memory has been eclipsed by the more famous—though less deadly—Great Chicago Fire, which occurred on the same day. The estimated death count of the Peshtigo Fire is between 1,500 and 2,500 people. October 8 1871 is truly an infamous day in the history of U.S. fires; in addition to the burning of Peshtigo and Chicago, there were fires at Port Huron, and the Michigan cities of Holland and Manistee. Many small fires were set intentionally in the area to clear land for railroad construction and farming, when a cold front came in from the west. The strong winds from the cold front escalated the flames to the point that a firestorm ensued. A firestorm is created during the highest intensity fires, when flames reach temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and the fire creates its own wind system. Firestorms can look similar to the mushroom cloud formed by the blast of a nuclear bomb, with massive clouds of smoke. The firestorm in Peshtigo destroyed 1.2 million acres of forest. It is impossible to know exactly how many lives were lost, but the fire destroyed twelve entire communities. The fire continued across the Peshtigo River on its path of destruction. Survivors recounted that the wind speeds generated in the firestorm created an experience similar to that of a tornado, with cars being thrown through the air. Many of those who survived managed to do so by immersing themselves in the cold Peshtigo River, though some who tried this perished from hypothermia.
The staggering coincidence that so many fires occurred on the same day in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois led to speculation about a mutual cause. One such hypothesis was that the cause of these fires was a comet called Beila’s Comet. This comet was first observed in the 18th century and in the 19th century was discovered to be a recurring comet. It was theorized that fragments from the comet caused the fires in these Midwestern areas on October 8, but this has been much disputed by academics, who say that a comet fragment would be icy cold by the time it reached the Earth’s surface, and would likely explode in the upper atmosphere.
2. 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
San Francisco has had a very troubled history of natural disasters. Between 1849 and 1851—during the peak of the California Gold Rush—San Francisco endured seven fires. In 1851 the sixth of these, by far the worst, destroyed approximately three-quarters of the city. It destroyed around 2,000 buildings, but only nine lives are confirmed to have been lost. The cause for this fire may have been arson.
Then, in 1906, San Francisco was devastated once more. A very powerful earthquake hit San Francisco, and fires began in the city shortly afterward. Though the earthquake was incredibly destructive in its own right, it is believed that the fires it began took many more lives than the earthquake itself. Approximately 3,000 people died as the result of the earthquake and fires, and more than 80% of the city of San Francisco was destroyed. San Francisco’s perilous location on the San Andreas Fault line is the reason for its susceptibility to high magnitude earthquakes such as the one that occurred in 1906. Shaking could be felt all the way in the Los Angeles area, Oregon, and inner Nevada. The Richter Magnitude Scale had not been invented yet by the time of the earthquake, but retrospective estimates on the modern magnitude scale are between 7.7 to 8.3.
It has been estimated that 90% of the destruction during this event came from the fires caused by the earthquake. The fires were caused mostly by ruptured gas mains. Approximately 25,000 buildings were destroyed as the fires burned for four days and four nights. Some fires were started by poorly trained firemen attempting to use dynamite to destroy buildings and create firebreaks. Still more fires were started by homeowners who intentionally started fires so that they could collect insurance money—earthquake damage alone would get them nothing under their plans. Nearby cities such as Santa Rosa and San Jose also suffered considerable damage. Many people were left homeless. Some stayed, while others fled to Oakland and Berkeley.
At the time San Francisco had been the United State’s most important trade and cultural center in the West; though the city rebuilt quickly, the devastation from the earthquake and fires diverted the flow of trade and power south to Los Angeles, which took San Francisco’s place as the primary cultural and trade hub of the western U.S.
Military members were ordered to stroll the streets and prevent looting. The army built thousands of temporary relief houses to accommodate the displaced. News of the disaster spread around the world, causing governments, institutions, and wealthy individuals to donate funds for the rebuilding of San Francisco. Many insurance companies went bankrupt in the face of massive unexpected payouts.
3. Cloquet Fire
This fire occurred in 1918 in northern Minnesota. It was caused by the combination of railroad sparks and dry forest conditions. 453 people died and 52,000 people were either injured or displaced. The area was primarily known for its logging operations. Drought conditions, high winds, and a lack of firefighting equipment all led to the rapid spread of the fire through the forest. Many people were left homeless after their communities had been destroyed. They sought refuge in the nearby town of Duluth, Minnesota, as well as Superior, Wisconsin. Victims were given temporary housing in public locations such as hospitals, schools, and churches.
4. The Iroquois Theatre Fire
The deadliest single-building fire in United States history occurred in Chicago in 1903. The Iroquois Theatre had a capacity of 1,602 and was located near a busy shopping district. The theater’s design was tragically mistaken with only one entrance/exit to the building. The fire occurred during a matinee of the popular musical Mr. Blue Beard on December 30. The cause of the fire was an electrical short circuit in an arc light, which caught a muslin curtain on fire. Stagehands attempted to put out the fire with the provided equipment, but failed to do so. Theatergoers swarmed towards the main entrance from all levels, crowding against each other and blocking the way. Fire exits were located hidden behind draperies, but most members of the crowd couldn’t figure out how to open their locks. Actor Eddie Foy who played the comedic lead earned a reputation as a hero after staying on stage as the theater burned, trying to keep the crowd calm. Over 600 people died from this fire—more than from the entire Great Chicago Fire. Afterwards increased fire safety precautions were implemented in theaters across the United States and in some areas of Europe. There was speculation that fire inspectors and city officials had been bribed to allow the poorly designed Iroquois Theater to operate, but in the end no one was punished.
5. The Great Michigan Fire
This fire occurred on the same day as the Peshtigo Fire and the Great Chicago Fire, causing October 8 1871 to be undeniably the worst day of fire in U.S. history. The approximate death toll is 500, though this number is very debatable. There is no real way to know. Really a combination of separate small fires in the same area, this event is included in the same theory as the Peshtigo Fire that speculates the cause was none other than Beila’s Comet. More than 3,900 square miles were burned during this catastrophic event.
There you have it, the top 5 deadliest fires in U.S. history. Arguably the San Francisco fire was more an earthquake than a fire, but as was discussed, the majority of the damages are suspected to have been from fires. With recent California fires becoming a major concern, it is more important than ever to fire-protect your home if you live in an at-risk area. Check out our post on the Top 5 Ways to Fireprotect Your Home, and get Vulcan Vents if you haven’t already.