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Five Famous Forest Fires

Rising temperatures and low humidity levels in Sequoia National Forest in California have done nothing to help firefighters who are currently battling to contain a blaze that has already burned almost 4,000 acres of beautiful forest. Authorities speculate the fire, which is now about 65 percent contained, was started by a camper in the Goldledge Campgrounds on June 3rd.

With camping season in full-force, it's important to remember how easily a campfire can get out of hand. Who better than Smokey the Bear to lend a hand in teaching us fire safety? Only you can prevent forest fires, after all.

To really drive the point of fire safety home, I'm offering up some worst case scenarios from the past -- from the great Michigan Thumb Fire of 1881 to Yellowstone's largest fire in history, we'll explore some of the most powerful and deadly forest fires the world has ever seen. Be careful out there!


Michigan, 1881. The state of Michigan is separated into two peninsulas: the upper and lower. The "thumb" of the lower peninsula (which resembles a mitten) hosted a number of fires in the early 1880s, the most violent and widespread of them being the great Thumb Fire. On September 5, 1881, the culmination of a severe drought, hurricane-strength winds, and the logging industry's dried up leftovers, a scorching fire broke out somewhere in Tuscola County and spread over one million square acres (just over 1,500 square miles) in less than 24 hours. Almost 300 people were killed and over 5,000 were left homeless. Damage was estimated at $2.5-million (over $50-million according to this inflation calculator). The American Red Cross, which was founded a few months earlier in May of 1881, responded to the blaze which marked the organization's first major disaster response.

Yellowstone National Park, 1988. What started as a single lightning strike in the United State's first and oldest national park on June 22 turned into Yellowstone's largest fire in recorded history. The fire was allowed to burn and spread naturally under the controversial "natural burn" policy which allows fires to continue burning as long as they were original sparked by non-human forces. Unfortunately, the summer of 1988 was "one of the driest and windiest since the park was established in 1872," and before the winter snows fell and doused the flames, almost 800,000 acres were gone. Visitors to the park today can find seedlings growing amongst the charred remains. The National Park Services's website for Yellowstone offers visitors the chance to be a fire spotter with their Mt. Washburn Fire LookOut Webcam. Though currently down for maintenance, the camera is located in a "glass house" on top of Mt. Washburn with panoramic views of the entire area. The fire lookout isn't open to the public, but the same gorgeous, panoramic views can be seen from the top of the mountain anyway, making the 3 mile hike to the top one of the most popular trails in the park.

Georgia and Florida, 2007. On April 16, 2007, high winds blew through Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge -- "one of the oldest and most well preserved freshwater areas in America" -- causing a tree to fall on a power line, showering sparks on the drought-ridden land. By mid-May, this fast-moving wildfire quickly became not only Georgia's largest fire in recorded history, but Florida's as well. "As of today [Monday, June 11], there are 115 wildfires in Florida on 130,466 acres," writes the Sun-Herald. The folks at NASA say that many of the extremely hot and erratic-behaving fires have been contained, but "smoldering and creeping fire will probably continue until heavy rain-possibly a hurricane-drenches the area." To put it into prospective, the smoke from these fires is so immense that it has drifted hundreds of miles north and been spotted as far as North Carolina.

Victoria, Australia, 1983. Seventy-five people, including seventeen firefighters, died in what is known as Australia's deadliest bushfire in history: the Ash Wednesday fires. The blaze was so massive and so incredibly strong that firefighters were unable to contain even small portions of it, and the fire only stopped spreading when it eventually hit the Southern ocean. "More than 3,700 buildings were destroyed, including 84 commercial, and about 1,000 farms," according to the Australian government. Leading up to the fire, Victoria -- known for it's extremely dry climate -- had been under a severe drought for over 10 months. Along with rainfall, the relative humidity was also extremely low which made vegetation brittle and powerfully flammable, and in under 24 hours, over 520,000 hectares (1.2-million acres) across two states were gone.

Colorado, 2002. Terry Lynn Barton, a U.S. Forest Service worker in Colorado, tried to burn a handful of letters from her estranged husband, but ran into a few problems. First, she set fire to love lost in an area where campfires had been outlawed due to drought -- something a U.S. Forest Service worker, someone who enforces the no-fire ban, ought to know. This lead to the largest wildfire in Colorado state history -- now known as the "Hayman Fires" -- burning through 210 square miles of Pike National Forest, killing five firefighters, and causing nearly $40-million in damages. She was later indited on charges of "willfully and maliciously destroying U.S. property and causing personal injury by setting a blaze that has grown into a wildfire of historic proportions," and authorities believe the love letter story covered up other reasons for deliberately starting the blaze. She eventually pleaded guilty to arson, and is now serving 12 years in jail.

Filed under: History, Learning, United States, Australia

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