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A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest bushfires and wildfires. Although the word has been used to describe certain large fires, the phenomenon's determining characteristic is a fire with its own storm-force winds from every point of the compass.

The same underlying combustion physics can also apply to man-made structures such as cities during war or natural disaster.

Firestorms are thought to have been part of the mechanism of large urban fires, such as accompanied the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. A genuine firestorm was involved in the 1991 wildfire disaster in Oakland, California and more recently, the October 2017 Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, California. Firestorms were also created by the firebombing raids of World War II in cities like Hamburg and Dresden. Of the two nuclear weapons used in combat, only Hiroshima resulted in a firestorm.

In contrast, experts suggest that due to the nature of modern U.S. city design and construction, a firestorm is unlikely after a nuclear detonation.

Urban / City fires & firestorms

  1. [ Wikipedia - Firestorm
  2. Wikipedia - List of town and city fires (Includes those from antiquity through middle ages thru 2010.)
  3. TopTenz - Top 10 Most Famous Fires in History
  4. National Fire Protection Association - Deadliest fires and explosions in US history (20 listed)
  5. History Stories - Urban infernos Throughout History. by Jennie Cohen. 7 Oct 2011
  • Great Fire of Rome (64 AD) - (Wikipedia - Great Fire of Rome)
  • London 1212 - TopTenz - Top 10 Most Famous Fires in History
    • Known also as The Great Fire of Southwark, left as many as 3,000 people dead, many of whom died when they were trapped on the engulfed London Bridge.
  • Great Fire of London (1666) - (Wikipedia - Great Fire of London)
    • The death toll is unknown but was traditionally thought to have been small, as only six verified deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded; moreover, the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims, leaving no recognizable remains.
  • Great Chicago Fire (1871) - (Wikipedia - Great Chicago Fire) - killed up to 300 people
  • Peshtigo, Wisconsin 1871 - (See: Great Fire of 1871; opTenz - Top 10 Most Famous Fires in History; The Washington Post - The night America burned -- and most overlooked -- fire in US history. By Michael S. Rosenwald. 6 Dec 2017)
    • In upstate Wisconsin, and that this fire would be responsible for more deaths by fire than any other in U.S. history. The little town of Peshtigo, most of whose population of 1,700 died in the flames—with many of their bodies never recovered. Surviving witnesses reported that the firestorm generated a tornado that threw rail cars hundreds of feet and flung entire houses into the air.
  • Boston 1872 - TopTenz - Top 10 Most Famous Fires in History
    • Some 776 building and twenty people—being turned into charred cinders, making it one of the East Coast’s most devastating fires.
  • San Francisco earthquake (1906) - (1906 San Francisco earthquake) - 700–3,000+ deaths.
    • The fire that burned 25,000 buildings over 490 city blocks and left some 3,000 dead was both man-made and natural; natural in that the fire was a by-product of a massive earthquake that hit the city in the predawn hours of April 18, 1906, and man-made as many of the destroyed structures were the result of clumsy efforts by untrained and poorly led firefighters to dynamite largely intact buildings in an attempt to create firebreaks.
  • Great Kantō earthquake (1923) - (ō_earthquake Wikipedia - 1923 Great Kantō earthquake])
    • Estimated casualties totaled about 142,800 deaths, including about 40,000 who went missing and were presumed dead. According to the Japanese construction company Kajima Kobori Research's conclusive report of September 2004, 105,385 deaths were confirmed in the 1923 quake. Because the earthquake struck at lunchtime when many people were cooking meals over fire, many people died as a result of the many large fires that broke out. Some fires developed into firestorms that swept across cities. Many people died when their feet became stuck on melting tarmac. The single greatest loss of life was caused by a fire tornado that engulfed the Rikugun Honjo Hifukusho (formerly the Army Clothing Depot) in downtown Tokyo, where about 38,000 people were incinerated after taking shelter there following the earthquake.
  • Tokyo, Japan (1923) - TopTenz - Top 10 Most Famous Fires in History
    • Tokyo was both leveled by a massive earthquake and ravaged by a fire that swept through the rubble afterwards, resulting in a staggering death toll that some estimates place as high as 142,000 (with the single greatest loss of life occurring when approximately 38,000 people packed into an open space in downtown Tokyo were incinerated by a firestorm-induced fire whirl).
  • Second Great Fire of London (1940) - (Wikipedia - Second Great Fire of London)
    • On night of 29-30 December 1940, approximately 100,000 bombs fell on the city. The raid saw 1,500 fires begin in the city. Twelve of those killed in the raid were firefighters, while 250 were injured. There were a total of 160 deaths.
  • Texas City, Texas 1947 - TopTenz - Top 10 Most Famous Fires in History
    • Started in a freighter that was carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, resulting in the largest industrial explosion in US history. Nearly 600 people died or were missing, including the entire Texas City volunteer fire department.
  • Canberra bushfires (2003) - (Wikipedia - 2003 Canberra bushfires)
    • After burning for a week around the edges of the ACT, the fires entered the suburbs of Canberra on 18 January 2003. Over the next ten hours, four people died (Alison Tener, 38, Peter Brooke, 74, and Douglas Fraser, 60, and Dorothy McGrath, 76, of the Mount Stromlo Forestry Settlement), over 490 were injured.
  • Black Saturday bushfires (2009) - (Wikipedia - Black Saurday bushfires)
    • The Black Saturday bushfires were a series of bushfires that ignited or were burning across the Australian state of Victoria on and around Saturday, 7 February 2009 and were Australia's all-time worst bushfire disasters. The fires occurred during extreme bushfire-weather conditions and resulted in Australia's highest ever loss of life from a bushfire; 180 people died and 414 were injured as a result of the fires. 164 people died in the fires themselves, 12 died later in hospital, and 4 died from other causes including car crashes.
  • Predrógâo Grande wildfire (2017) - (Wikipedia - June 2017 Portugal wildfires)
    • A series of four initial deadly wildfires erupted across central Portugal in the afternoon of 17 June 2017 within minutes of each other, resulting in at least 66 deaths and 204 injured people. The greatest loss of life took place on a rural road in Pedrógão Grande, where 47 people died in or near their cars when a fire overtook the area; 30 people died while trapped in their vehicles while the other 17 died nearby trying to escape on foot. Another 11 people died in Nodeirinho, near the IC8 road. Twelve people survived near Mó Grande as fire overtook the roads by taking refuge in a large water tank near the motorway. Dozens of small communities were severely affected.
  • From: TopTenz - Top 10 Most Famous Fires in History
    • New York City (burned twice, once in 1776 and again in 1835);
    • Amsterdam (burned to the ground twice in 1421 and again in 1452.);
    • Moscow (set alight no fewer than four times between 1547 and 1812.);
    • Copenhagen (burned to the ground in 1728 and again sixty-seven years later); and
    • New Orleans (burned in 1788 and 1794).

References & Additional Reading

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