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10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

A photo firefighter Andrew Ashcraft sent to his wife before Ashcroft and 18 of his colleagues died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire this weekend.
A photo firefighter Andrew Ashcraft sent to his wife before Ashcroft and 18 of his colleagues died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire this weekend.
Juliann Ashcraft via breakingnews.com

The Yarnell Hill Fire burning southwest of Prescott is, by far, the deadliest wildfire in the history of Arizona.

While a few wildfires in Arizona's history are marked by tragedy, others will be remembered more for their quirks -- like the Sunflower Fire last year, started by a guy shooting off a novelty shotgun shell during a bachelor party. Check out our list of the 10 worst wildfires in modern Arizona history:

10.) Warm Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 59,000 acres

On June 8th, 2006, lightning struck the Kaibab Pleateu in northern Arizona. The Forest Service let it burn as a managed fire to shape the area, with their first large-scale "Wildland Fire Use" plan. That plan was scrapped about two weeks later, when the fire developed into a full-blown wildfire.

9.) Lone Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 61,000 acres

In 1996, near the Four Peaks Wilderness, two campers left a campfire smoldering. Eleven days and 61,000 acres later, Arizona had its largest wildfire in at least 25 years (hence our list of wildfires in modern Arizona history). While reporters for both the Associated Press and the Arizona Republic called it the largest fire in 25 years in reports at the time, neither mentioned a single detail about the fire that occurred 25 years prior. The Forest Service says it was the largest in the state's history at the time.

8.) Aspen Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 84,750 acres, 340 buildings

This fire burned for a month in 2003, in and around the small community of Summerhaven, near the top of Mt. Lemmon in Tucson. Dozens of homes and businesses were ruined by the fire. Even during our most recent visit, about a month ago, we noted that the fire damage was still evident, with dozens of burned trees lined up behind newer cabin-homes.

7.) Willow Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 119,500 acres

The 2004 Willow Fire (not to be confused with the Wallow Fire), which was caused by lightning, was a near-disaster, as it came within two miles of Payson, before being contained and extinguished.

 

6.) Horseshoe Two Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 223.000 acres, 23 buildings

The human-caused Horseshoe Two Fire burned in the Chiricahua Mountains in 2011, and was (un)conveniently spreading at the same time as the Wallow fire. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain famously blamed the Monument Fires on immigrants crossing the border illegally, despite not having a single shred of evidence to back it up.

5.) Cave Creek Complex Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 248,310 acres, the Cave Creek Mistress mine, and the biggest saguaro cactus known to man

Not only did this 2005 lightning-caused fire burn a lot of land, but it also took down a couple landmarks with it. "The Grand One," a 45-foot-high saguaro -- the largest known in the world at the time -- collapsed from the fire. The Cave Creek Mistress mine was also destroyed in the fire, which was relatively close to the outskirts of the Phoenix metro area.

4.) Rodeo-Chediski Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 468,638 acres, 426 buildings

You know what's worse than a giant wildfire? Two giant wildfires. Unemployed wildland firefighter Leonard Gregg started the Rodeo fire in 2002, with the hope that he'd get some work. Gregg, who reportedly had brain damage, got to go to prison for nine years instead, and was released in 2011. The genius who set the other fire, Valinda Jo Elliott got lost on the Fort Apache Reservation, and after a couple days, she started a fire in an attempt to signal a news helicopter. More than 30,000 people had to be evacuated, as more than 400 homes were destroyed, in what was the largest wildfire ever in Arizona at the time.

 

3.) Wallow Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 538,049 acres, 70-plus buildings, 16 injured

This was the largest fire ever in Arizona, burning more than 840 square miles. Two cousins, David and Caleb Malboeuf, left their campfire unattended in the White Mountains in 2011, which ended up burning land and buildings in four Arizona counties, and even reached into New Mexico. The cousins ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges.

2.) Dude Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 28,000 acres, 63 homes, six firefighters killed

This fire, which burned homes near Payson in 1990, was the deadliest day for Arizona firefighters at the time.

1.) Yarnell Hill Fire

10 Worst Wildfires in Modern Arizona History

Toll: 8,500-plus acres, 19 firefighters killed

As of yesterday, this fire was still zero percent contained after 19 Prescott-based firefighters died while battling it. Although it's nowhere close near the largest by area, the human loss is unparalleled.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.


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