The history of wildfires in U.S. history is muddy. Some of this has to do with how long records have been kept. Another has to do with whether modern analysts accept information that is over a century old. Some historians think The Great Peshtigo Fire in 1871 was the largest. It burned up an area the size of Connecticut as it roared through upper Michigan and Wisconsin. However, modern lists of the worst wildfires exclude it.
In 2020, 59,000 wildfires burned 10.1 million acres in the U.S., the second-most recorded since 1960 and just barely lower than the total acreage burned in 2015. This year may be worse. While it remains to be seen how 2021 will compare to last year’s season, this year has already produced at least one historical fire. The Bootleg Fire in Oregon has, as of the time of this writing, already burned nearly 400,000 acres, making it one of the largest of this century.
An analysis by 24/7 Wall St. has used to pick the most destructive wildfire in the U.S. this century. We reviewed data on wildfires that burned 100,000 acres or more since 2000 from the National Interagency Fire Center’s Fire (NIFC) and Aviation Management Web Applications Program to make our selection.
Because of extended drought, high temperatures, and dry grasslands, the western continental states and Alaska have fallen victim to most of the severe wildfires in the nation’s history. These fires have also been some of the nation’s worst natural disasters.
To determine the most destructive wildfire in the U.S. this century, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data on wildfires that burned 100,000 acres or more between 2000 and 2021, as well as additional data on active and partially contained fires in 2021 from the Fire, Weather, and Avalanche Center. Data on active fires is current as of mid-day July 22.
The number of large fires, which refers to the number of fires that burned more than 100,000 acres, also came from the NIFC. Larger fires often split into several other smaller events, causing their own pattern of destruction. Fires initially part of larger incidents, as well as their aggregate fires, have been indicated.
The most destructive wildfire was the Taylor Highway Complex. Here are the details:
> Area burned: 1,303,358 acres
> State affected: Alaska
> Year: 2004
> Cause: Lightning
Fires erupted in Alaska in mid-June and eventually consumed more than 3.4 million acres by the end of the month. During the peak of the crisis, 466 firefighting personnel were assigned to the fire. Taylor Highway in eastern Alaska was the largest area impacted by the inferno, which raged into August, burning 1.3 million acres.