The 10 Most Destructive Wildfires in American History

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Neighborhood destroyed by fire /

Despite a trend in recent years toward larger and more extreme weather events, 2023 was one of the least active wildfire seasons on record by some metrics.

That’s small comfort to anyone who has ever been in the path of a fire — in some cases, a burned area may need a decade or more to recover. And 2023 nonetheless had one of the worst wildfires in history, according to a recent analysis.

The Zebra, an insurance comparison website, recently used data from the Insurance Information Institute on the number of acres burned, number of lives lost and the overall financial costs of damage to identify the most destructive fires ever.

Following are the worst wildfires in American history.

10. Atlas Fire

Wildfire smoke from the Atlas Fire near Napa, California
Sergey Malomuzh /

Where this fire took place: North of Napa, California

When this fire began: Oct. 8, 2017

Total damage caused by this fire: $3.6 billion

The Atlas Fire began on Atlas Peak in Napa, when falling trees or branches struck power conductors operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Carried by strong winds, the fire raged south across wineries within hours, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

By the time it was contained, six people had died. All told, more than 51,000 acres were burned.

9. Taylor Complex Fires

Wildfire in Alaska forest burning trees
Scott David Huffman /

Where this fire took place: Eastern Alaska

When this fire began: June 26, 2004

Total damage caused by this fire: $49 million

The Taylor Complex Fire was the largest in Alaska and the largest in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007. More than 1.3 million acres burned across the state after the fire was ignited by lightning. However, it was the only wildfire on this list in which no people lost their lives and property damage was fairly low.

8. Woolsey Fire

Woolsey Fire in 2018 near Kanan Road in California
Morphius Film /

Where this fire took place: South of Simi Valley, California

When this fire began: Nov. 8, 2018

Total damage caused by this fire: $6 billion

A loose power line in the Simi Hills of Southern California sparked a fire in Woolsey Canyon, on the site of a former federal research facility. It caused three deaths, burned nearly 100,000 acres — much of it in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area — and forced the evacuation of about 295,000 people.

7. Thumb Fire

Lighthouse in Port Sanilac, Michigan
Dennis MacDonald /

Where this fire took place: Sanilac County, Michigan

When this fire began: Sept. 5, 1881

Total damage caused by this fire: $74 million

Two devasting fires ravaged the “thumb” region of Michigan in 1871 and 1881. During the 1871 fire, residents of Forestville and White Rock fled into the waters of Lake Huron to escape the flames. That fire deadened green timber and paved the way for an even more deadly fire in the region in 1881, according to an expert at the University of Michigan.

The 1881 fire left 150 people dead, including some who jumped into wells for safety but never came out.

6. Cloquet and Moose Lake Fires

Cloquet, Minnesota
Jacob Boomsma /

Where this fire took place: Northeastern Minnesota

When this fire began: Oct. 10, 1918

Total damage caused by this fire: $1 billion

More than a century ago, a spark from a passing train ignited this wildfire, the worst in Minnesota’s history, near the towns of Moose Lake and Cloquet. The driest conditions in nearly 50 years and significant winds drove the flames far, destroying 38 communities and claiming more than 1,000 lives. A quarter of a million acres burned.

5. Maui Wildfires

Wildfire damage in Lahaina on Maui, Hawaii
Zane Vergara /

Where this fire took place: Island of Maui, Hawaii

When this fire began: Aug. 8, 2023

Total damage caused by this fire: $5.5 billion

“One of the deadliest U.S. wildfires in at least the past 100 years” decimated the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which says high winds and dry weather caused wildfires to develop. The death toll ultimately rose to 100 people. More than two in five of the victims were over the age of 70, though the youngest was just 7 years old.

4. Tubbs Fire

The rubble of an Arby's restaurant after the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California
Sheila Fitzgerald /

Where this fire took place: Napa and Sonoma Counties, California

When this fire began: Oct. 8, 2017

Total damage caused by this fire: $9.5 billion

The cause of the Tubbs fire was disputed — power company PG&E blamed privately installed and managed electrical equipment on a homeowner’s property — but the blaze started near Calistoga and grew large enough to kill nearly two dozen people in its 36,800-acre reach. More than 5,600 structures were burned.

3. Camp Fire

A burned home destroyed after the Camp Fire in Paradise, California
M Yerman /

Where this fire took place: Butte County, California

When this fire began: Nov. 8, 2018

Total damage caused by this fire: $10.7 billion

This early-morning fire was caused by power lines downed by high winds, and, as is often the case, those high winds then fanned the flames into a major disaster. More than 52,000 people were forced to evacuate, and 85 people died. The fire consumed more than 150,000 acres and some 18,000 structures, including 9,000 homes, and the town of Paradise was almost completely destroyed.

2. Great Fire of 1910

Trees burned by fire at the Cascade campground in Lolo National Forest, Montana
davidrh /

Where this fire took place: Across Idaho and western Montana

When this fire began: Aug. 20, 1910

Total damage caused by this fire: $31 million

Also known as the “Big Blowup,” the Great Fire of 1910 claimed the lives of at least 85 people, most of them firefighters. The devastating series of forest fires ignited by lightning storms were spread by high winds, consuming more than 3 million acres and making it the most widespread blaze on this list. President William Howard Taft deployed about 4,000 soldiers to help contain the fires that swept over the states of Idaho and Montana.

1. Peshtigo Fire

A high school in Peshtigo, Wisconsin
DavidEmmanuel /

Where this fire took place: Northeast Wisconsin

When this fire began: Oct. 8, 1871

Total damage caused by this fire: $169 million

The worst fire in American history began in northeast Wisconsin the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. This one cost more than 1,200 lives and burned somewhere between 1.2 million and 1.5 million acres, including 16 towns. The city the fire is named for, Peshtigo, “was gone in an hour,” according to a report from the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Today’s Peshtigo is very different.

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