Firefighters in Australia are battling dozens of forest fires across Victoria and New South Wales, spawned by one of the worst heatwaves the country has ever seen, with temperatures set to reach 117°F (47°C) this weekend. (I wrote on Monday about the deaths the heat had caused http://disasterhistorian.blogspot.com/2009/02/heatwaves.html.) The fire service is using water bombs from the air, and thousands of volunteers are helping them on the ground.
Australia’s worst forest fires came 26 years ago on 16 February, 1983 – “Ash Wednesday”, killing 47 people in Victoria and 28 in South Australia. The dead included 17 firefighters. Over 300,000 sheep and 18,000 cattle also perished.
Perhaps the worst forest fire of all time was the one that devastated Peshtigo and other lumber towns on the banks of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, USA on October 8, 1871. Because the blaze happened on the very same night at the Great Chicago Fire, it has tended to be rather forgotten, but more than 1,150 people were killed and Peshtigo was burned to the ground. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.