As of Thursday, the Carlton Complex Wildfire in Washington has consumed over a quarter million acres, or an area roughly four times the size of Seattle. At least 200 homes have been burned and another 1,200 have been evacuated in 12 towns. Over 1,600 firefighters are working around the clock and, at last reports, the fire was 16% contained.
But, big as it is, the Carlton Complex fire isn’t all that huge by historical standards.
To put this fire into perspective, here is an overview of some of the largest wildfires to impact North America over the last 150 years.
The Miramichi Fire – New Brunswick and Maine
Surprisingly, some of the largest wildfires in history occurred more than 150 years ago when technology was non-existent and most buildings were made of wood and stone.
The Miramichi/Maine fire of 1825 was by far one of the most devastating, consuming more than 3 million acres and killing 160 people (although some reports put that number closer to 300). Located in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, Miramichi had experienced a particularly dry summer that year. While the cause of the fire is unknown, its devastation is well recorded with reports of the fire traveling at nearly 60 miles per hour across the wilderness in Miramichi and a portion of Maine along the Miramichi River. It left more than 15,000 people homeless, burning their crops and seeds for the next year’s planting season. Many more died because of exposure to the elements and a lack of food.
The Peshtigo Fire – Wisconsin and Michigan
Starting on October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire burned over 3.7 million acres in Wisconsin and Michigan, killing an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people and is remembered as the deadliest wildfire in modern history. Eight hundred people, or half of the town of Peshtigo’s population, perished in the fire. Some survivors tell of jumping into rivers to escape the flames, but many who jumped into the Peshtigo River were boiled to death because of the severity and size of the fire.
It was far more devastating than the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred on the same day, with 250 lives lost and 17,400 structures destroyed. The Great Chicago Fire remains the most destructive metropolitan fire in North America with more than $200,000,000 in property damage.
The Thumb Fire – Michigan
Ten years after the Peshtigo Fire, Michigan was devastated again by the Lower Michigan or Thumb Fire in September 1881. With settlers pouring into the area, more people were affected by the fire and left homeless. Over 2.5 million acres and more than 3,000 structures were burned. A reported 169 to 282 lives were lost in the fire. This marked the first time the American Red Cross responded in the aftermath of a fire, shipping food and supplies to the more than 14,000 residents displaced by the fire.
South Carolina Fires
In February 1898, a series of fires swept across South Carolina, charring 3 million acres of forest land and resulting in 14 unconfirmed deaths. Homes and sawmills were among the structures burned.
The Big Burn – Idaho
Over 3 million acres were consumed by the Great Idaho Fire as it traveled across Northern Idaho and western Montana on August 20-21, 1910. Hurricane-force winds blew hundreds of small fires into several large blazes. Eighty-five lives were lost; 78 fire-fighters (including a 28-man fire-fighting crew outside of Avery, Idaho) and seven residents. This would be the largest number of fire-fighters killed in a single event until the September 11 attacks in New York City.
Yellowstone Fires – Wyoming, Montana and Idaho
Yellowstone National Park encompasses 3,468 miles (2,221,800 acres) and during the summer of 1988, forest fires scorched 36% of the park. For the first time in its history, the park was closed as thousands of fire-fighters fought the various blazes. Old Faithful, the famous geyser, was almost destroyed. Fire-fighting efforts would exceed $240 million. The fires were finally extinguished with the September snowfalls.
Taylor Complex – Alaska
The Taylor Complex fire in 2004 would be part of Alaska’s record-breaking wildfire season, when more than 6 million acres burned. Started by lightning, the Taylor fire burned more than 1.3 million acres.