Worst wildfires in U.S. history

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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How destructive are wildfires?

Wildfires — an unplanned, uncontrolled fire — can be an essential part of keeping ecosystems healthy; however, more and more frequently we are seeing wildfires burn many acres, destroying homes, endangering people and leading to poor air quality at great distances from the fire.

In 2022, wildfires burned 7.5 million acres in the United States.[1] Some states are more affected than others. Texas leads the nation in the number of wildfires; while Alaska is the state with the most acres burned. However, wildfires can occur in all 50 states, and are particularly prevalent during times of drought.

But what are the worst fires in U.S. history? We compared data from the Insurance Information Institute on the fires that caused:

  • The most destruction from a cost perspective[2]
  • The largest number of acres burned[3]
  • And the greatest loss of life[4]

1. Peshtigo Fire

On October 8, 1871, the most devastating forest fire in American history occurred in northeast Wisconsin and Michigan. The fire is named for the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin which sustained some of the worst damages; however, the fire also burned 11 other towns. In Peshtigo alone, 800 people lost their lives. The fire was believed to have been started by railroad workers clearing land to lay tracks which ignited dry brush. The Peshtigo Fire happened on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, although the two are unconnected.[5]

Cost: $169 million 

Deaths: More than 1,200 lives lost

Acres burned: 1.5 million

2. Great Fire of 1910

Sometimes called the Big Blowup of 1910, this was a forest fire that destroyed nearly 3 million acres (the most of any single fire on our list) of western Montana and Northern Idaho between August 20 - 23, 1910. A very dry spring and summer, severe lightning storms and high winds created the perfect conditions for a fire to ignite and spread quickly. Most of the deaths in this fire were firefighters trying to contain the blaze. One unfortunate result of this fire is that it led to a policy of putting out wildfires as soon as they start, which we now know leads to denser growth of trees and underbrush which in turn leads to bigger and harder-to-put-out fires in the future.[6]

Cost: $31 million 

Deaths: 87 lives lost

Acres burned: 3 million 

3. Camp Fire

While the fires above it on this list may have led to more deaths and more acres burned, the Camp Fire, which started on November 8, 2018 in California, is far and away the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history. The fire originated from a faulty electric transmission line, and wind drove it east into the foothills towns of Paradise of Concow. Firefighting resources were strained at the time fighting several other California wildfires and the fire was not completely extinguished for several weeks. In that time, 18,000 buildings were destroyed including almost the entirety of the town of Paradise.[7]

Cost: $10.7 billion 

Deaths: 86 lives lost

Acres burned: 153,336


4. Tubbs Fire

Eerily similar to the entry above, the Tubbs Fire also occurred in Northern California, just one year earlier. On October 8, 2017, a private electrical system adjacent to a home led to a fire that would destroy 5,600 structures across California’s wine country. The fire was named for its starting place near Tubbs Lane in the town of Calistoga. Strong winds made containing the fire difficult, and it wasn’t 100% contained until weeks later on October 31.[8]

Cost: $9.5 billion

Deaths: 22 lives lost

Acres burned: 36,810  

5. Maui Wildfires

In August of 2023, a series of wildfires broke out in Hawaii, particularly on the island of Maui that would have devastating consequences. The fire grew from small brushfires to an unstoppable blaze through a combination of drought conditions and heavy winds. The most significant fire was in West Maui near the town of Lahaina, which was almost completely destroyed. In addition to more than 100 people losing their lives, even 8 months after the event in 2024, over 5,400 people remain displaced in hotels.[9]

Cost: $5.5 billion

Deaths: More than 100 lives were lost

Acres burned: 17,000

6. Cloquet and Moose Lake Fires

In October 1918, passing trains sparked the worst wildfire outbreak to occur in the state of Minnesota. At the time of the spark, Minnesota was in the middle of a very dry season which caused the fire to spread rapidly. News of the fire was slow to reach settled areas in Duluth and Brookston, leading to tragedy. In total 38 communities were destroyed and the hardest hit areas were Moose Lake and Cloquet.[10]

Cost: $1 billion

Deaths: Over 1,000 lives lost 

Acres burned: 250,000

7. Thumb Fire

Going back in time again to September 5, 1881, a fire broke out in the “thumb” area of Michigan. The fire, which destroyed over a million acres, was the result of drought, heavy winds and poor ecological conditions due to logging. Essentially, loggers at the time would leave the crowns of trees on the ground leading to an accumulation of needles and stems that contained a high amount of resin and burned very hot. The result was a fire that burned everything in its path. Thousands of homes and livelihoods were destroyed, leaving 14,000 people dependent on public aid following the fire.[11]

Cost: $74 million 

Deaths: 282 lives lost

Acres burned: 1 million

8. Woolsey Fire

As mentioned above with the Camp Fire, fire resources were strained in November 2018. That’s because on the same day the Camp Fire began burning across Northern California, the Woolsley Fire was started in Southern California. The fire began in Simi Valley and traveled into the San Fernando Valley. The fire burned almost 100,000 acres, much of it land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The fire also damaged 1,643 structures and led to the displacement of nearly 300,000.[12]

Cost: $6 billion

Deaths: 3 lives lost

Acres burned: 96,949


9. Taylor Complex Fires

The only entry on our list in which no people lost their lives and the property damage is fairly low. That said, the Taylor Complex Fires make the list because they destroyed over 1.3 million acres of Alaska in 2004. By acreage, it was the largest fire of the decade. It was almost part of the record-breaking 2004 fire season in Alaska that burned 6.6 million acres, the most ever in recorded history. Contributing factors are increased temperatures and droughts, shorter snow seasons and warmer nights.[13]  

Cost: $49 million 

Deaths: 0 lives lost

Acres burned: 1.3 million

10. Atlas Fire

The same year as the Tubbs Fire, the Atlas Fire also burned in California wine country, north of the city of Napa. The fire began on October 8, 2017 on Atlas Peak Road, where it was quickly carried south by winds. The fire was contained by October 28, by which time it had burned through over 50,000 acres and destroyed 783 structures.[14]

Cost: $3.6 billion 

Deaths: 6 lives lost

Acres burned: 51,624

Protecting yourself from wildfires

You might note that many of the more recent fires (Camp Fire, Tubbs Fire, Atlas Fire, Woolsey Fire) have fewer casualties and much greater damage costs. This is in large part because our country is much more built up than in the 19th and 20th centuries. We have better infrastructure for notifying and evacuating people safetly, but also more expensive housing and buildings that insurance companies pay the cost to rebuild. 

Additionally, wildfire activity in the United States only seems to be increasing, as the effects of global climate change lead to hotter, drier conditions. So it's important to know what to do if fires are spotted in your area.

Obviously, the most important thing to do in the event of a wildfire is to evacuate safely. Loss of human lives is the most devastating consequence of any wildfire.

There are also things you can do to protect your home if you live in a wildfire-prone area. Perhaps the most important thing is to be aware of what your home insurance covers and make sure your home’s replacement value is up to date.