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Paradise fire is eerily similar to a 1918 inferno that killed 453

A search and rescue team combs through debris for human remains after the Camp fire destroyed most of Paradise, Calif., on Tuesday, November 20, 2018.

MARCUS YAM, LOS ANGELES TIMES/TN

By PAUL ROGERS | The Mercury News | Published: November 22, 2018

SAN JOSE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — With the death toll at 83 and counting, the Camp Fire in Butte County ranks as the deadliest wildfire anywhere in the United States in 100 years.

But the last time a wildfire killed this many people in America, many of the circumstances were eerily similar: Parched forests. Strong winds. Terrified townspeople killed while fleeing in their cars. Towns wiped off the map. A nation stunned.

It happened in 1918 in Northern Minnesota, near Duluth.

“Our photos are black and white,” said Rachel Martin, executive director of the Carlton County Historical Society in Cloquet, a town of 12,000 people. “The images from California’s fire are in color. But they look similar. When I heard Jerry Brown on TV, I thought he could be talking about this area. All the conditions were the same.”

America was a different place in 1918. Woodrow Wilson was president. World War I was in its final weeks. Charlie Chaplin filled movie theaters. Women still didn’t have the right to vote. And much of the country was built around a rural farming economy.

On an unusually hot, sunny day on Oct. 12, and following a several years of drought, sparks from steam-powered locomotives ignited the vast pine forests of Northern Minnesota, about 100 miles north of Minneapolis.

The monstrous blaze took people by surprise. Huge walls of flame, fed by piles of branches and bark left from logging operations, roared into towns like Cloquet and Moose Lake, wiping several off the map. The fire burned into the city of Duluth. Thousands of desperate people escaped on trains, or survived by diving into lakes and streams. The smoke plume was so big ships in the Atlantic Ocean reported it.

Scores were killed as they tried to flee in Model T cars, which crashed and burned along the rural roadways as flames overtook them. When it was over, more than 4,000 houses and 41 schools were destroyed, 249,000 acres blackened and 453 people were dead. Many bodies were never found. It was the worst disaster in the United States since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

People who live in the small towns near Duluth have marked this year with tributes and commemorations of that terrible event 100 years ago. They have watched with sadness at California’s loss. And they know how long the scars and memories will last.

“That’s how you tell time around here,” Martin said. “Something either happened before or after the fire. Every family from here who has lived here a long time has family stories to tell. We have filing cabinets full of them. It was a really big deal.”

Families died while trying to take refuge in wells and root cellars. One family, the Soderbergs, lost 13 people, including nine children, when they hid in a root cellar and the fire consumed all the oxygen.

A 27-foot-tall obelisk at Riverside Cemetery in Moose Lake marks the spot where 200 victims were buried in a mass grave.

The event remains the deadliest disaster in Minnesota history. After the fires, residents sued the railroad companies, but didn’t win repayment until 1935 after 17 years of court battles. In the weeks after, people flocked to the town to help it rebuild. As with other decimated towns, and likely with Paradise, some survivors moved on for good.

“The weekend after the fire, 300 carpenters from Duluth built hundreds of houses,” Martin said. “They worked furiously to make it livable. But a lot of people didn’t come back. They stayed with relatives or couldn’t afford a new house. It displaced a lot of people.”

Letters from survivors paint a harsh picture — some of which is echoed in the stories from Paradise.

“The flames looked as if they reached the sky, and it roared like thunder,” 20-year-old Tony Hanson wrote in a letter to his sister Alice, after the Cloquet fire. “I cannot tell how terrible it looked out on the west side. Mothers with children in their arms all burned together. Car after car all along the road were burned and Moose Lake is under military rule. It is just covered with tents — soldiers guarding everywhere. You have to get a pass to go in and out of town. They caught one man robbing the dead — they held a little trial and took him out and shot him.”

Wildfires that destroyed entire American towns were not uncommon in the late 1800s and very early 1900s.

The 1871 Peshtigo Fire killed about 1,500 people in Wisconsin and Michigan, with so many fatalities that there weren’t enough survivors in some communities to identify the dead. The Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana, killing 86 and sending smoke plumes to New York. Afterward, the U.S. Forest Service set a policy of putting out fires by 10 a.m. the next morning, and radios, helicopters, planes and other equipment improved safety dramatically over the generations.

But now, with hotter, larger fires growing ever more intense in a warming world, creating “fire tornadoes” and walls of flame hundreds of feet tall, whole towns could again burn down, fire experts say.

“Fire scientists I’ve been talking to have been predicting this,” said Michael Kodas, author of Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame. “We’re finally seeing it happen. It’s terribly sad. It’s probably going to happen again and happen more often.”

Fires destroyed whole neighborhoods in the San Diego suburbs in 2007. They burned into the city limits of Colorado Springs, the second largest city in Colorado, in 2012, destroying 346 homes. Last year, the Tubbs fire leveled 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa, killing 22 people.

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who co-founded Weather Underground, a weather website, put together a list of the most deadly wildfires in U.S. history, combining information from databases and other sources. When he saw where the Paradise fire fit in — on par with fires from a century gone by — he said it underscored the impact of warmer temperatures, longer fire seasons and millions of people who now live in fire-prone areas.

“I was shocked,” he said. “We thought we eradicated this. It’s a very sobering reminder we are in a new climate regime, and some of the old threats we thought were past are with us again. The same goes for hurricanes. We’re an increasingly vulnerable society. We have more people, more people in harm’s way, and more extreme weather. That’s adding up to higher death tolls.”

Deadliest U.S. wildfires

1,200+ deaths, 1871 (Peshtigo Fire, Wisconsin)
453+ deaths, 1918 (Cloquet Fire, Minnesota)
418+ deaths, 1894 (Hinkley Fire, Minnesota)
282 deaths, 1882 (Thumb Fire, Michigan)
87 deaths, 1910 (Great Fire of 1910, Idaho and Montana)
81 deaths, 2018 (Camp Fire, Paradise, California)
65 deaths, 1902 (Yacolt Burn, Oregon and Washington)
29 deaths, 1933 (Griffith Park Fire, Los Angeles, California)
25 deaths, 1991 (Tunnel Fire, Oakland Hills, California)
22 deaths, 2017 (Tubbs Fire, California)
19 deaths, 2013 (Yarnell Fire, Arizona)
16 deaths, 1947 (The Great Fires of 1947, Maine)
15 deaths, 2003 (Cedar Fire, Sand Diego County, California)
15 deaths, 1953 (Rattlesnake Fire, California)
15 deaths, 1937 (Blackwater Creek Fire, Wyoming)
14 deaths, 2017 (Gatlinburg, Tennessee)
13 deaths, 1994 (South Canyon Fire, Colorado)
Source: Jeff Masters, co-founder Weather Underground

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