Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 4, 2018.

Northwoods Wildfire

Minnesota’s chaotic and deadly Cloquet fire of 1918


One-hundred years ago on October 12, a wildfire tore through dozens of communities in northern Minnesota, killing 559 people and leaving tens of thousands more injured, homeless, or both.

According to NFPA data, the blaze, known as the Cloquet Fire, is the sixth-deadliest fire or explosion in United States history. It is also the 25th most costly, with losses totaling $35 million—over half a billion dollars in today’s money.

Like many disasters that struck during World War I, suspicion immediately arose that the fire was set by enemy spies. In reality, it was likely ignited by sparks created as trains rumbled along the area’s many railroad tracks, according to reports. From there, the blaze grew rapidly. “A convergence of conditions—a dry summer, a rapid drop in humidity, high winds, and a lack of firefighting equipment—led to the rapid progression of fires through the wooded areas surrounding Cloquet and the peat bogs to the south, particularly around Moose Lake,” according to Minnesota 150, a book on the state’s history.

Close to 1 million acres of land burned and more than 35 towns were razed by fire, which destroyed over 4,000 homes, 6,000 barns, and 40 schools.

Newspapers at the time reported as many as 500 deaths and painted a chaotic picture as people tried to escape the region. “The scene at the [train] station was indescribable,” a police officer told The New York Times. “There came a rush of wind and the entire town was in flames. The trains pulled out with the fires blazing closely behind them. Women wept and clung to their children, while others cried frantically for their missing ones. The flames licked at cars. Windows in the coaches were broken by the heat. The engineers and firemen alternately stoked, to give the boilers all the fuel they could stand. Other trains were hurriedly made up of flat cars, box cars, and anything that would roll. But even then all did not get away. There are many dead in Cloquet.”

An article published by NFPA in January 1919 pointed to a lack of preventative measures, such as creating firebreaks by clearing vegetation and plowing, which contributed to the fire’s devastation. It also detailed a peculiar aspect of the fire’s aftermath—the emergence of packs of timber wolves that killed livestock and spread fear among citizens. “It is to be hoped that stringent legislative and administrative measures will be taken to prevent the wolves … from again making their appearance in the devastated area and again imperiling the lives and homes of the people of Minnesota through their selfish disregard of the general welfare,” the article said.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: MINNESOTA HISTORIC SOCIETY