Tragic and Destructive North American Wildfires - 1950 to Present

of 10

Cedar Fire Disaster - San Diego County, California - Late October, 2003

Cedar Fire
Cedar Fire, California. Map by CDF

The Cedar Fire was the second largest wildfire in the history of the state of California. San Diego County's Cedar Fire burned over 280,000 acres destroying 2,232 homes and killing 14 (including one firefighter). Most of the victims were killed on the first day of the fire as they tried to escape their homes by foot and in vehicles. One hundred and four firefighters were injured.

On October 25 of 2003 a flammable shrub called chaparral was dry, in abundance and ignited by a "hunter". Strong 40 mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds made for extremely dry conditions in and around San Diego County and Lakeside. Daytime temperatures were above 90°F and the humidity was in the single-digits. With all elements of the fire triangle present and at high levels, the Cedar Fire rapidly turned into a dangerous firestorm. Government reports support a final conclusion that nothing could have prevented major destruction after ignition.

Investigators arrested Sergio Martinez for "setting fire to timber". Mr. Martinez concocted several stories around becoming lost hunting and setting a search fire. These inconsistencies resulted in being charged with lying to a federal officer but plea bargained for the arson charge.

of 10

Okanagan Mountain Park Fire - British Columbia, Canada - August, 2003

Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Okanagan Mountain Park Fire. Photo by NASA

On August 16, 2003 a lightning strike started a wildfire some 50 miles north of the state of Washington (U.S.)/ British Columbia (Canada) international line near Rattlesnake Island in Okanagan Mountain Park. This devastating wildfire burned in and out of the park for several weeks, ultimately forcing the evacuation of 45,000 residents and consuming 239 homes. The final size of the forest fire was determined to be just over 60,000 acres.

The Okanagan Mountain Park Fire was a classic "interface zone" fire. Thousands of homes were constructed in the zone where urban human habitation shared space with wildland conditions that were soon to become a fire trap.

The wildfire was fueled by constant winds during one of the driest summers in BC history. Starting on September 5, 2003, nearly 30,000 people of the city of Kelowna were ordered from their homes as the forest fire moved closer. That was about one-third of the city’s total population.

Official reports confirm that 60 fire departments, 1,400 armed forces troops and 1,000 forest fire fighters were used in fighting the wildfire but were largely unsuccessful in stopping the fire's spread. Amazingly no one died as a direct result of the fire but thousands lost everything they owned.

of 10

Hayman Fire Disaster - Pike National Forest, Colorado - June, 2002

The Hayman Fire
The Hayman Fire. NASA Photo

The 2002 western fire season ended with fires burning 7.2 million acres and costing over $1 billion to fight. That same wildfire season is considered one of the most intense of the past half-century in the western United States.

The premiere fire that year was the Hayman which burned 138,000 acres and 133 homes in 20 days. It still holds the record for being Colorado's largest wildfire ever. Most of the fire (72%) stayed on the Pike National Forest south and west of Denver and northwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Enough fire escaped national forest lands to cause significant private damage.

Beginning in 1998 La Nina brought below-normal precipitation and unseasonably dry air masses to the Colorado Front Range. Conditions degraded year after year in the predominantly ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forests becoming drier with each passing season. In the Summer of 2002 the fuel moisture conditions were among the driest seen in at least the past 30 years.

A U.S. Forest Service worker, Terry Lynn Barton, started the fire in a USFS campground as she patrolled under a no-burn order. A federal grand jury charged Barton on four felony counts including willfully and maliciously destroying U.S. property and causing personal injury.

USFS Case Study: Hayman Fire
Photo Gallery: After Hayman Fire

of 10

Thirtymile Fire Disaster - Winthrop, Washington - July, 2001

Thirtymile Fire. USFS Photo

On July 10, 2001, four U.S. Forest Service firefighters died while battling the Thirtymile Fire in Okanogan County. Six others were injured including two hikers. It is the second deadliest fire in Washington state history.

The fire was ignited by a camper's fire 30 miles north of Winthrop in Okanogan National Forest in the Chewuch River Valley. The blaze was actually only 25 acres in size when 21 Forest Service firefighters were dispatched to contain it.

Later investigation shows that the wildfire was handed over to several crews, obviously still uncontrolled. A second crew, the "Entiat Hotshots" crew experienced equipment failure and had to withdraw. The third and ill-fated "Northwest Regulars #6" crew was dispatched and suffered the brunt of the disaster. One ironic footnote was that a water bucket drop was delayed because of environmental concerns.

The hotshot crew firefighters eventually deployed their safety shelters as the fire overran them but four died from asphyxia. One firefighter, Rebecca Welch, sheltered herself and two hikers in a fire shelter designed for one person - all survived. Some crew-members found safety in the water of a creek. The fire grew to 9,300 acres before it was brought under control.

There were no towns or structures near the fire. Under Forest Service policy, managers were obligated to fight the fire because it was started by human activity. Naturally occurring fires, such as those started by lightning, were (depending on the forest plan) allowed to burn. Had the fire started one mile to the west in a designated wilderness area, regardless of origin, it might have been allowed to burn because of the fire management plan in place for wilderness areas.

Training Overview: Thirty Mile Fire (pdf)
Photo Gallery and Time Line: Thirty Mile Fire

of 10

The Lowden Ranch Prescribed Fire - Lewiston, California - July, 1999

On July 2, 1999, a planned 100-acre prescribed fire ignited by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) escaped control near Lewiston, California. The wildfire grew to about 2,000 acres and destroyed 23 residences before it was contained a week later by the California Department of Forestry. This "controlled" burn escaped and is now a text book example of how not to use fire under dry conditions.

A review team ultimately indicated that the BLM inadequately evaluated fire weather, fire behavior, and smoke impacts. The BLM did not light a test fire as prescribed in the burn plan and a plan of protection for houses was never discussed. Adequate protection resources were not available in case of the fire's escape. Heads rolled.

The Lowden Ranch prescribed fire has had major impacts on the federal govenment's use of prescribed fire - until Los Alamos.
BLM Case Study: Lowden Ranch Prescribed Fire
NPS Case Study: The Los Alamos Prescribed Fire

of 10

South Canyon Fire Disaster - Glenwood Springs, Colorado - July, 1994

South Canyon Fire Disaster - Glenwood Springs, Colorado - July, 1994. USFS Illustration

On July 3, 1994, the Bureau of Land Management received a report of a fire near the base of Storm King Mountain in the South Canyon, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Over the next several days the South Canyon Fire increased in size and the BLM/Forest Service dispatched hotshot crews, smokejumpers, and helicopters to contain the fire - with very little luck.

To view pictures and to read more about the South Canyon Fire Disaster of 1994, visit our South Canyon Fire Explanation page.

of 10

Dude Fire Disaster - Near Payson, Arizona - Late June, 1990

Map of the Entire Dude Fire Near Payson, AZ, 1990. United States Forest Service

On June 25, 1990, a dry lightning storm triggered a fire beneath the Mogollon Rim about 10 miles northeast of Payson, Arizona and on the Dude Creek. The fire occurred on one of the hottest days ever recorded at the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest.

Weather conditions were just right (high temperatures, low relative humidity) for wildfires. Large accumulations of fuel and several years of below normal precipitation caused the fire to burned quickly and within a matter of hours the Dude Fire had become uncontrollable. Before the fire was finally extinguished 10 days later, over 28,480 acres had burned in 2 national forests, 63 homes were destroyed, and six firefighters were killed.

This initial rapid fire spread entrapped eleven firefighters, six of which perished in Walk Moore Canyon and just below Bonita Creek Estates . The fire continued to actively spread for another three days to destroy the historic Zane Grey Cabin and Tonto Creek Fish hatchery. A total of $12 million in losses was incurred on the Dude Fire, which cost approximately $7,500,000 to suppress.

The Dude Fire Disaster inspired Paul Gleason to propose the LCES system (Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, Safety Zones), now a minimum safety standard for wildland firefighting. Other lessons learned from this incident that continue to influence fire suppression around the world today include knowledge about plume-dominated fire behavior, improved protocols for incident command transfer, and implementation of refresher training for fire shelter use.

Details on the Dude Fire

of 10

Yellowstone Fire Disaster - Yellowstone National Park - Summer, 1988

The National Park Service allowed June lightning-caused fires to burn until July 14, 1988 in Yellowstone National Park. Park policy was to let all natural caused fire continue to burn. The worst fire in the history of the park had burned only 25,000 acres until then. Thousands of firefighters responded to the blaze in order to prevent valuable structures from burning.

No serious effort was made to extinguish the fires, and many burned until the arrival of autumn rains. Ecologists argued that fire is part of the Yellowstone ecosystem, and that not allowing the fires to run their course would result in a choked, sick, and decaying forest. The National Park Service now has a policy of prescribed burning to prevent another dangerous buildup of flammable materials.

Because of this "let the fires burn" policy, fires in Wyoming and Montana burned across almost one million acres in and around Yellowstone National Park . Taxpayers finally paid $120 million to fight the fires of Yellowstone. Compare that to the park's annual budget of $17.5 million.

NIFC Case Study: Yellowstone Fires
Wildland Fires in Yellowstone

of 10

Laguna Fire Disaster - Cleveland National Forest, California - September, 1970

San Diego County Fires. NASA Photos

The Laguna fire or Kitchen Creek fire ignited on September 26, 1970 when downed power lines sparked fire fueled by Santa Ana winds and chaparral. The Laguna disaster started in eastern San Diego County in the Kitchen Creek area near the Cleveland National Forest. More than 75% of the vegetation in that forest was chaparral, coastal sage scrub, chemise, manzanita and ceonothus - very flamable fuel when dry.

The Laguna Fire held the infamous title of worst fire disaster in California history for 33 years until The Cedar Fire destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres and killed 14 people. They both occurred in approximately the same area, an area which has been noted as having firestorms nearly every decade. The Laguna fire disaster then became known as the second-largest fire in California history burning 175,000 acres and 382 homes killing eight people.

In only 24 hours the Laguna firestorm burned and was carried by westward blowing Santa Ana winds for about 30 miles to the outskirts of El Cajon and Spring Valley. The fire totally destroyed the communities of Harbison Canyon and Crest.

of 10

Capitan Gap Fire Disaster - Lincoln National Forest , New Mexico - May, 1950

The Capitan Gap Fire Disaster was caused when a cook stove over heated and started casting sparks. It was actually the first of two fires that began on Thursday, May 4th, 1950 in Lincoln National Forest, in New Mexico in the Capitan mountain range. The fires eventually combined to torched 17,000 acres. A firestorm from the Capitan Gap Fire slopped over a firebreak, nearly killing a 24-man firefighting crew who used recently dug firebreaks and a recent landslide to bury themselves in the earth. They all survived the fire.

My reason for including this as a major North American wildfire disaster was not because of the actual destruction (which was substantial) as much as the symbol that developed out of the ashes and smoke of that fire - Smokey Bear. On May 9th in a moppin up action, a badly singned bear cub was found. This cub bear would change the face of forest fire prevention forever.

Found clinging to a charred tree and briefly called "Hotfoot Teddy", the tiny bear cub was brought back to fire camp by a group of soldiers/firefighters from Ft. Bliss, Texas. Veternarian Ed Smith and his wife Ruth Bell nursed the new wildfire prevention mascot back to health. Smokey was sent on to the National Zoo in Washington, DC to become a legend.

The Career of Smokey Bear

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nix, Steve. "Tragic and Destructive North American Wildfires - 1950 to Present." ThoughtCo, Nov. 24, 2020, Nix, Steve. (2020, November 24). Tragic and Destructive North American Wildfires - 1950 to Present. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "Tragic and Destructive North American Wildfires - 1950 to Present." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 12, 2021).