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100th Anniversary of Worst Wildfire Outbreak in Minnesota History

12 Oct 2018, 2:31 pm

[Duluth & Northeastern Railroad yards after the 1918 fire. From the Minnesota Historical Society]

One hundred years ago, a spark from a passing train, parched landscape, and dry gusty winds combined to produce Minnesota’s worst wildfire outbreak and worst natural disaster in state history.

Northeast Minnesota at the time was experiencing its “driest season in 48 years,” according to the U. S. Weather Bureau’s official in charge, H. W. Richardson. Conditions had been building for months. Lumbering, the region’s main industry, created giant depots of cut, dry lumber and left the countryside littered with wood waste. Farmers routinely burned fields and brush. Locomotives, contrary to law, spewed sparks and embers. The extremely dry conditions continued through the summer and fall of 1918.

[Street view after fire, Moose Lake, MN, 1918. From Minnesota Historical Society]

On October 10, 1918, a passing train’s spark ignited a fire that smoldered for a few days near milepost 62 northwest of Cloquet. As a cold front moved into the area on October 12th, the fire came alive, fueled by stiff winds and a steep drop in humidity.  The peak wind measured by the Weather Bureau was 76 mph at 5:52 p.m. with a 5 minute wind speed of 65 mph. The fire grew and spread rapidly with the gusty and dry southwest winds.

[Cloquet, MN ruins after the fire, 1918. From Minnesota Historical Society]

News of the oncoming fire did not reach Duluth until late afternoon on October 12th when the fire devouring the small town of Brookston. The fire entered Duluth at the Woodland neighborhood at about 6:00 pm. The fires subsided early on October 13th.

Survivors described phenomena of terror: walls of flame hundreds of feet tall, houses exploding from heat, bolts of flaming wood propelled through the air, the sun turned red, and a roar louder than thunder.  They saved themselves in lakes, streams, ditches, and open fields.

[There was not just a single fire, there were numerous fires spread through northeastern Minnesota as can be seen by the red colored areas as seen in the map above. From NWS Duluth]

In total, around 1,000 people lost their lives in the fire. The hardest hit areas were Moose Lake, Cloquet and Kettle River. Thirty-eight communities were destroyed, 250,000 acres were burned and $73 million (over a billion in today’s economy) in property damage was suffered.

Information from the National Weather Service Duluth and Minnesota Historical Society

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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