[MCN] Megafires of the past indicate risk from a hot, dry future

Lance Olsen lance at wildrockies.org
Sun Apr 7 12:32:28 EDT 2019

The Worst Wild Fires in U.S. History  [ 1871 and 1910 ]

By: Christopher C. Burt,  <https://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/archive.html>Weather Historian

7:08 PM GMT on August 27, 2013

https://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/the-worst-wild-fires-in-us-history.html <https://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/the-worst-wild-fires-in-us-history.html>


The single worst wild fire in U.S. history, in both size and fatalities, is known as the Great Peshtigo Fire which burned 3.8 million acres (5,938 square miles) and killed at least 1,500 in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the week of October 8-14, 1871. Many sources put the size of the fire at 1.2-1.5 million acres but that included only the area that was completely burned and not the additional 2.3 million acres in surrounding counties that also suffered burn damage (see maps below). Unattended fires at logging camps in the area most likely caused the fire. After a long hot and very dry summer strong warm autumn winds from the southwest fanned the fires out of control.

Amazingly, the Great Chicago Fire of even greater fame also happened this same week (October 8-10) and remains the worst urban fire in U.S. history with over 300 killed (assuming we treat the deaths in San Francisco in 1906 as earthquake-related). In fact, there is a connection between the wild fires in Wisconsin and Michigan and that in Chicago. An apocryphal story (made up by a newspaper man) blamed the cause of the Chicago fire on a cow knocking a lantern over in a barn. In fact, it is likely the fire was caused by embers from fires burning in the woods west of town being blown by the same strong southwesterly winds (that fanned the flames in Wisconsin) into the city and ignited some of the wooden buildings which were predominate in the city at that time.

The worst wild fire in western history and the 2nd worst overall in the United States was the Great Fire of 1910. This massive forest fire burned some 3 million acres (4,700 square miles) in Idaho and Montana beginning on August 20-21, 1910. It killed at least 87 people, mostly ill-equipped firefighters, including a single crew of 28 who were overcome by the flames near Setzer Creek outside Avery, Idaho. The worst hit town was Wallace, Idaho, of which one-third was razed.The fire was the culmination (as always) of a long dry summer that spawned a number of small fires that were whipped into a single huge conflagration by near hurricane-force winds on August 20th during the passage of a strong cold front. Smoke from the fire was observed as far east as upstate New York.

https://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/the-worst-wild-fires-in-us-history.html <https://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/the-worst-wild-fires-in-us-history.html>
“Serious thresholds are crossed when forests convert to vegetation types without trees 
and, as a result, lose valued forest ecosystem services. ”
Constance I. Millar and Nathan L. Stephenson. Temperate forest health in an era of 
emerging megadisturbance. Science  21 August 2015
"… the race between climate dynamics and  climate policy will be a close one …."

Hans Joachim Schellenhuber. “Global warming: Stop worrying and start panicking?” 
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2008

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