The Largest – The Worst – The Most Expensive Wildfires in Pennsylvania

A combined DCNR & PGC prescribed fire operation

There are a few questions that seem to come up consistently when people ask me about my research. So here are the answers as I understand them or supported by data that I have relating to forest fires in Pennsylvania.

Most Fires in a Year – 1930 – 6,790 fires reported to the Bureau of Forestry.

Most Acres Burned in a Year – 1913 – 386,267 acres. There were probably more acres burned during some years, and in fact a couple of years may have exceeded 1 Million acres burned, but there are no records to support that.

The year that had the Largest Average Fire was also 1913 when the average size was 412.2 acres per fire.

District With the Most Fires from 1979 to 2015 was District 18 – The Weiser State Forest District which had  5,285 fires.

District With the Most Acres Burned from 1979 to 2015 was District 20, the Loyalsock District where 28,324 acres were covered by flames.

The District With the Highest Fire/Acre  from 1979 to 2015 is District 10 – The Sproul State Forest District – where an average fire during that time was  33.5 acres.

The most expensive year to extinguish wild fires was 1999 when  $1,175,580 was spent to extinguish 1,406 fires on 8,424 acres.

The highest cost per acre happened in 2007 when it cost $263.13 per acre to fight fire.

Largest Fire in the Allegheny National Forest began on May 14, 1926 – Owls Nest – Loleta – Sackett Complex, Elk, McKean, Forest Counties – 31,500 acres.

Largest Fire in PDF&W History – May 7, 1934, 39,900 acres burned between Snow Shoe and Renovo in Centre and Clinton counties. This is also believed to be the largest fire on state forest land.

Largest Fire in DER History – April 28, 1990 – Two Rock Fire between Snow Shoe and Renovo in Centre and Clinton counties. It burned 9,656 acres, located on some of the same land as the one above.

Largest Fire in DCNR History – April 20, 2016 – Bear Town & Sixteen Mile Fires, Monroe & Pike Counties, 8,644 acres. This is also the largest wildfire in Pennsylvania in the 21st Century.

Largest Fire in Department of Forestry History – Further research is needed to determine this.  Certainly the blazes in  1903 in  Potter, Clinton and Lycoming Counties that destroyed Cross Fork, and other lumber towns and camps certainly has to be at the top.  Watch for further details or comment if you have better information.  One fire that stands out in the Department of Forestry records occurred in 1915.  The fire  burned from April 21 to 28, 1915 in Noyes, Chapman and Grugan Townships, in Clinton County. The cause of the fire is listed as “fishermen” and cost $239.68 to extinguish. It was listed as burning 4,400 acres of state land. The exact location of the fire is hard to determine. Anyone with information should contact me. Considering that anglers were blamed, it is likely the fire began in the Tangascootack Watershed



Things Haven’t Changed All That Much

State officials, men connected with big corporations and private owners of forest land, conservationists and lovers of wild life have been making a special effort this year to prevent recurrences of the fall forest fires and calls will be made upon sportsmen and others who go into the woods to not only prevent fires, but to go out of their way to stop them. The loss in timber in Pennsylvania last spring alone was more than a million dollars and thousands of acres, including some young timber planted at considerable expense, were ruined. An elaborate system of warnings of fires has been perfected in a dozen counties and hunters will be asked to give their help in event of blazes occurring. Appeals have also been made to the national railroad authorities as statistics show that a high percentage of the forest fires in the regions, wherein there is good hunting have been caused by sparks from locomotives. Loss in game last spring was very great, notably in Centre and other counties where efforts to propagate have been under way, fires occurring in districts which had afforded good hunting. This fall the small number of fires has been encouraging.

From the Harrisburg Telegraph, October 26, 1918

Pepper Hill Historical Marker Dedicated


On October 19, 2016 – 78 years to the day after the fire – a Pennsylvania Historical Marker was dedicated to the 8 men who lost their lives in the tragic fire in 1938.

The dedication ceremony was held at the Emporium Volunteer Fire Department fire hall. Jeannie Wambaugh, District Forester for the Elk State Forest was the emcee. Speaking also were Rev. Joe Schwartz, Mike Kern, Chief of the Division of Forest Fire Protection, and Greg Burkhouse, Forest Fire Specialist in the Elk State Forest.

Approximately 100 people were in attendance including the Cameron County Commissioners, color guard and most of the Fire Foresters and Fire Specialists in the Bureau of Forestry.

The monument itself is located at the mouth of Pepper Hill Run along PA Route 872.  Parking is severely limited at the marker location (as is the case with most historical markers), so caution is advised if you stop to read the marker.

This is the second memorial dedicated to the CCC members who died in the tragic fire. The other memorial is the Wayside Rest, dedicated in 1939 and paid for by the CCC men to honor their fallen comrades. That memorial is located east of Emporium on PA Route 120.

Not Exactly A Type III Engine

engine-800x588While sorting through the archives of the Pennsylvania Forest Heritage Association (PFHA) – Formerly the Pennsylvania Forest Fire Museum Association  we came across this photo.

We are not sure where or when the photo was taken but the engine has been identified as a 1907 Waterous horse-drawn engine. It was powered by a 16 HP gasoline motor and could pump at 330 GPM.  Any other information about the engine or the people is appreciated.

100 Years Ago

One hundred years ago Pennsylvania had just begun its Fire Warden program, mechanized firefighting on wildfires was in its infancy , and Pennsylvania was still largely rural. The last of the original “big woods” were being cut, and in northern PA the chemical wood industry was in high gear.

From the Harrisburg Telegraph of October 10, 1916 the following is found on page 12. The statistics are interesting.


Damage Done by Fires This Spring Was Reduced Because of the New State Plan

Pennsylvania suffered a loss of over 100,000 acres of forest land by fire during the spring forest fire season, according to figures given out by the Department of Forestry, to-day. The total number of forest fires for the whole State was 505 and the resulting loss in timber destroyed is estimated at about  $170,000. This compares very favorably with the record made last year, when the total area burned over  was more than 300.000 acres and the total number of fires was 1,100. The fall fire season, however, is Just opening and may add considerably to the figures for 1916.

Blair county heads the list this year with 13,986 acres burned over. Luzerne and Potter come next with 13,800 and 13,250 acres, respectively. Each of these counties had a single fire of over 10,000 acres, the largest of the season covering 11,000 acres in Blair county. Forest fires burned in forty-six of the sixty-seven counties of Pennsylvania, and twenty of these forty-six counties lost over a thousand acres of forest each. These counties are Bedford, Berks, Blair, Cameron, Carbon, Center, Clinton, Columbia,

Cumberland, Dauphin, Fayette, Huntingdon, Juniata, Lackawanna, Lebanon, Luzerne, Mifflin, Potter, Schuylkill and Tioga. Franklin county had forty-seven fires, the highest number recorded for a single county. Columbia county had only three fires, but has the highest average area burned per fire, 1,042 acres. Bucks county has the low record with two fires and 23 acres burned.

The causes of the fires are given as follows: Railroads. 169; brush burning on dry or windy days, 39; incendiary, 58; carelessness of campers, 39; carelessly conducted lumbering operations, 37; 5, miscellaneous, 30; unknown, 138; total, 505. Thirty-two of the fifty-eight fires of incendiary origin burned in Franklin county, mostly on the Mont Alto forest. The total cost of extinguishing all the fires was about $12,000.

Since the Bureau of Forest Protection was established last year efforts have been made to have the fire wardens take greater pains in determining the causes of forest fires. As a result the bills for extinguishing twenty-seven of the fires have been paid by those whose carelessness caused them, eight prosecutions and investigations have been ordered by the Attorney General’s department and twenty-seven cases are pending in which the Attorney General will be asked to bring action in case a settlement out of court cannot be effected.

The Great Peshtigo Fire

Many….well some people remember that on October 8, 1871 a small fire started in a stable on DeKoven Street in Chicago and caused a conflagration now called “The Great Chicago Fire.” Many blamed it and it became a legend that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern. Many doubt that is true.  The fire destroyed a large portion of the city and killed an estimated 300 people.

What many do not remember is that on the same day near Peshtigo, Wisconsin a fire that had been burning in the woods around town suddenly roared to life.

It had been a dry summer. Wells, springs and streams had been going dry all across the Midwest. The same conditions that were allowing the Wisconsin forests to burn, were affecting Chicago.

It is believed that the small fires in the woods were brought to life when a high pressure system moved out of Canada and across the Great Plains. The wind brought the small fires to life and the extra oxygen provided by winds caused the fire to gain strength and turn toward the town.

The firestorm hit the town rapidly and escape for many was cut off. Over 1200 people perished in the blaze. An accurate count could never be made because many of the bodies were never found. The fire burned hundreds of thousands of acres before it was eventually extinguished by rain and snow.

The Peshtigo Fire didn’t receive the publicity because it was rural, and Chicago took most of the attention. Together those two fires were the genesis of Fire Prevention Week.