The recent search for victims of the Maui wildfires has brought back painful memories of previous devastating wildfires in the United States, particularly in the western region. Over the last century, there have been several deadly wildfires that have left lasting impacts.
One of the deadliest wildfires in recent history took place in Northern California in November 2018. Known as the Camp Fire, it started in Butte County and became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The fire was caused by a faulty electric transmission line and spread rapidly, burning approximately 153,000 acres. Tragically, at least 85 people lost their lives and many others were injured. The town of Paradise was hit hardest, with 90% of structures being destroyed. Even years after the fire, the community was still struggling to recover, with vacant lots and debris-filled areas where houses once stood.
In 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona claimed the lives of 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots. These specialized firefighters were battling a fast-moving wildfire near Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix, when they became trapped. The fire was ignited by a lightning strike and burned over 8,000 acres of mountainous terrain, destroying 50 structures in the process.
Another notable wildfire occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991. The Oakland Hills Fire started as a small fire on private property in Oakland Hills. Firefighters initially extinguished the flames, but they reignited the next day due to smoldering embers. Strong winds spread the fire quickly, leading to a two-day firestorm. This devastating fire claimed the lives of 25 people, injured 150 others, and burned more than two square miles of land. Residential neighborhoods were particularly affected, with over 3,400 houses and apartment units, as well as 2,000 automobiles, being destroyed. The cause of the fire was never determined, but there were questions raised about the response time of the Oakland Fire Department.
In 1933, the Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles held the distinction of being the deadliest wildfire on record in California for decades before the Camp Fire. Although the area burned was relatively small, about 47 acres, 29 laborers assisting with firefighting efforts tragically lost their lives. At the time, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, and thousands of laborers hired by a federal public works program were already in or near the park. Many of these workers were recruited to help fight the fire, despite having little to no training. Reports indicated that the fire started due to a man’s careless act of tossing a lit cigarette on the side of the road.
Going back even further to 1918, the Cloquet Fire in Northeast Minnesota stands out as a devastating wildfire. Sparks from a passing train ignited the fire, which grew to engulf nearly 250,000 acres of timberland. It is estimated that around 1,000 people lost their lives in this fire. Northeast Minnesota was experiencing a remarkably dry season at the time, and strong gusty winds further fueled the fire’s rapid spread. Towns like Moose Lake, Cloquet, and Kettle River were quickly burned, with witnesses recalling the destruction of businesses including a local newspaper, a hotel, and a church.
These deadly wildfires throughout history serve as haunting reminders of the destructive power of nature and the importance of wildfire prevention and management. They have left lasting scars on communities and changed lives forever.