6 Worst Raging Fires and Explosive Volcanoes

(Part 3 in an Exclusive 4 Part WebEcoist Series on Natural Disasters)

The blast of heat from a volcano can be fierce enough to cause damage thousands of miles away; the hungry flames of a fire can destroy whole forests. While displays of fire and light in nature can be artistically breathtaking – from sundogs to lightning bolts to fire whirls – nature can also wield destructive, burning force. This post explores some of the most explosive fire related natural disasters in recent history.

Fires Then and Now

(Image via Top News)

Nearly everyone has heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The three-day fire only consumed 4 square miles, but that land happened to be in the middle of urban Chicago. The damage left behind made the Great Chicago Fire famous as one of the worst fires ever to strike a city. Yet not as many people know about the Peshtigo Fire, which occurred at the exact same time in Wisconsin (it lasted a few days longer than the fire in Chicago). Considered the worst fire in American history in terms of lives lost, the Peshtigo Fire claimed 1,500 souls and destroyed 3.8 million acres. In the last century technology and preparedness have advanced considerably, yet experts say we are under greater threat today from wild fire than ever before – and that’s largely due to global warming. Wild fires are increasing in number and severity; here are a few of the most recent and dramatic blazes.

Australia

(Images via Australia BOM, Gunghalin and NASA)

In 2003 a wild fire roared to life and rapidly claimed a swath of land the size of Texas. 500 homes, thousands of livestock, and 4 people were lost to the fire. The fires haven’t abated; 2006 and 2007 saw months of rainless weather that produced bush fire after bush fire, with firefighters and authorities having difficulty drawing sufficient resources to manage the ever-increasing blazes. Due to global warming, the threat of forest fire will jump some 20 to 30% in the coming decade in Australia.

Portugal

(Images via ArtSpirit and fire.uni)

Global warming’s effect on weather patterns has also caused a deadly impact in Portugal. In 2003 and 2005 the small country experienced fires so ravaging that collectively at least 10% of total forest land was lost – along with dozens of lives. The 2003 fire destroyed 350,000 hectares and was caused by hot winds and dry air (humidity has decreased in the region as global temperatures have risen). In 2005, the fires came back, destroying 300,000 more acres thanks to a prolonged drought in this once healthy, wooded region.

Indonesia

(Images via Art Diamond, fire.uni and RSS)

Indonesia has been plagued by horrific fires for over 15 years. At some intervals, fires caused such a reduction in air quality that residents living near burn areas were taking in the equivalent of 80 packs of cigarettes a day simply by breathing. 1997, 2006 and 2007 saw some of the worst fires on record, but the original 1982-1983 drought-driven fire was an unforgettable blaze marked as one of the worst fires of the 20th century. It’s not global warming to blame in recent years, however (at least, not directly). Rainforest is slashed and burned to make way for growing cash crops (in some cases, biofuels). Though natives have historically managed forest fires to open up agricultural land, foreign investors, arsonists and other aggressive parties have encouraged intentional forest fires in Indonesia that have unfortunately escalated into uncontrollable blazes.

Volcanic Explosions

(Image via blogger)

From the times of Pompeii, volcanoes have awed and terrified us with their power. As human civilization has advanced, the ability to monitor and even predict volcanic activity has improved greatly. Yet even recent volcanic explosions have not been without dramatic impact and deadly force. There are numerous active volcanoes all around the globe, broken by scientists into 12 general regions. Most are famously found on the Pacific “Ring of Fire“, where there are 452 volcanoes – 75% of the world’s active and dormant domes. (By the way, 90% of the world’s earthquakes also occur on the Ring of Fire.) Here are a few of the most devastating volcanic explosions in recent history.

Mt. St. Helens, Oregon, United States

Images via Cascade Volcanoes, USGSThinkquest and Earth Observatory

This volcanic mountain of St. Helens, part of the Cascade Mountain range that runs through the Pacific Northwest into Canada, is famous for its violent explosion in May of 1980 that devastated the region, killed 57 people, and sent a cloud of ash and debris around the world. Over 200 square miles of forestland were flattened and turned to ash. A new lava dome has continually grown in the decades since, and with steam escaping daily and mild tremors, scientists keep a close eye on it. As you can see from the lower right image, the land has gradually begun to rebound, with light vegetation and animals beginning to return – until the next eruption. (Read more here.)

Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia

(Images via Wisconsin University, Colombian Flowers and Scarborough Schools)

Armero was a town located on a mountainside debris fan in Colombia. It was destroyed several times throughout history by mudslides resulting from Nevado del Ruiz’ volcanic activity. Yet after 140 years of dormancy, people appeared to have forgotten the historic danger and rebuilt the town to a sizeable population. When Nevado del Ruiz exploded in 1984, the resulting mudslide buried the town and killed over 23,000 people despite over a year of warnings from experts. The disaster was an agonizing event for Colombia; families were torn apart, children lost. For years efforts were made to reconnect families in the hopes of there being survivors. The trauma was truly a national tragedy.

Pinatubo, Luzon, Phillipines

(Images via Treehugger, Volcano Child and Wisconsin University)

In 1991 Mount Pinatubo, at the intersection of several Phillipine provinces on the island of Luzon, had eroded substantially and was covered in a luxuriant tropical rainforest that fed, clothed and housed the Aeta,  residents who had migrated centuries earlier when fleeing the Spanish. The eruption of the unassuming Pinatubo, a mountain many barely were aware of as existing, was 500 years in the making and is considered the most massive and destructive volcanic explosion of the 20th century. It was ranked as a VEI (volcanic explosivity index) 6 – Mt. St. Helens was a 5. It caused a global sulfuric haze, a global .9 degree (Fahrenheit) drop in temperatures and a spike in ozone damage. Though residents were mostly evacuated in time, the billions of tons of ash, magma and debris destroyed the region.

See Even More Incredible Natural Disasters:

Part One: 8 Devastating Earth and Land Disasters
Part Two: 6 Chilling Ice and Water Disasters
Part Four: 10 Sweeping Wind and Sky Disasters

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