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World's Worst Wildfires

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Whether sparked by Mother Nature or by the carelessness or maliciousness of man, these fires have ripped across the Earth with alarming ferocity and deadly consequences.

The Black Saturday Bushfires

(Photo by Stephen Henderson/CFA via Getty Images)
This wildfire was actually a swarm of numerous bushfires blazing across Victoria, Australia, numbering as many as 400 at the beginning and stretching from Feb. 7 to March 14, 2009 (Black Saturday refers to the day the blazes began). When the smoke cleared, 173 people were dead (though just one firefighter) and 414 injured, not to mention millions of Australia's trademark wildlife killed or injured. More than 1.1 million acres were charred, as well as 3,500 structures in dozens of towns. The causes of the various blazes ranged from fallen power lines to arson, but a major drought and a sweltering heatwave combined for the perfect storm.

The Peshtigo Fire

This firestorm roared across 3.7 million acres in Wisconsin and Michigan in October 1871, obliterating a dozen towns with flames so intense that they jumped several miles over the Green Bay. An estimated 1,500 people died in the fire, though since many population records were burned it's impossible to get an exact figure and the toll could have been as high as 2,500. The blaze was sparked by railroad workers clearing land for new tracks during bone-dry summer weather. Incidentally, the Peshtigo Fire happened the same night of the Great Chicago Fire, which left the Peshtigo tragedy on the back burner of history. Some have claimed a comet touched off the blaze, but this theory has been discounted by experts.

The Black Friday Bushfires

(The State of Victoria)
At nearly 5 million acres burned, this Jan. 13, 1939, collection of blazes is still considered one of the largest wildfires in the world. The blazes, sparked by an oppressive heat and carelessness with fire, killed 71 people, destroying entire towns and taking out 1,000 homes and 69 sawmills. About three quarters of the state of Victoria was affected in some way by the blazes, which are considered by the government to be "perhaps the most significant event in the environmental history of Victoria" -- ash from the blazes reached New Zealand. The fires, which were quenched by a Jan. 15 rainstorm, forever altered how the regional authority approached fire management.

The Miramichi Fire

("A View of Miramichi", 1760, oil painting by Francis Swaine)
These blazes whipped up into a firestorm during a dry summer in Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick in October 1825, charring a massive 3 million acres and taking out settlements along the Miramichi River. The fire killed 160 (at least -- because of the number of loggers in the area many more may have been trapped and killed by the flames) and left 15,000 homeless, taking out nearly all of the buildings in some towns. The cause of the blaze is unknown, but hot weather combined with fires used by settlers probably contributed to the disaster. The fire is estimated to have burned up about a fifth of New Brunswick's forests.

Greek Forest Fires

(Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
This series of massive forest fires stretched from June 28 to Sept. 3, 2007, with both arson and carelessness sparking the more than 3,000 blazes and hot, dry, windy conditions fueling the inferno. About 2,100 structures were destroyed in the fires, which scorched 670,000 acres and killed 84 people. Flames burned dangerously close to historic sites such as Olympia and Athens. The blazes became a political football in Greece, coming just before a snap parliamentary election; the leftists seized on the disaster to accuse the conservative government of incompetence in its fire response.
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