Wikipedia's articles on wildfires cover geologic evidence of wildfires through the late Tertiary era, and a large number of articles on individual fires starting around 1900. Other than a half-dozen articles on fires in the 1800s, there's nothing about wildfires in the rest of human history: neither articles on individual fires nor mentions in larger-coverage articles.

Why not? I find it hard to believe that there were no disastrous large-scale fires for most of the 6000 years of recorded history. Europe, China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia aren't exactly the world's most fire-prone locations, but they do have the occasional wildfire. Further, the Spanish started settling the fire-prone California coast in the late 1600s, and the British settled the even-more-flammable Australia a century later, so this seems unlikely. Were the fires simply not seen as being worth writing about?

  • That's a good question. Possibly related: I live in BC, Canada and we've been having a lot of wildfires. One factor is supposedly our modern tendency to put out small fires that threaten property or timber harvests. Again in BC we've stopped planting trees that have no commercial value but don't burn well. And in the past, Natives/First Nations supposedly set fires on purpose in the spring, as it suited them. Point is, historical fires may have been frequent/low intensity rather than infrequent/high intensity from accumulated fuel. Which would affect the keeping of historical records. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Aug 21 '19 at 5:56
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    there's nothing about wildfires in the rest of human history This is more a case of disinterest on the part of Wikipedia editors (and perhaps historians in general) than a true lapse of the historical record - the wiki article does mention "In the 14th century Sardinia, firebreaks were used for wildfire protection." the Spanish started settling the fire-prone California coast in the late 1600s Note the population of California was still less than 100,000 by 1850. It would be unsurprising for wildfires in such a sparsely populated area to escape the rest of the world's notice. – Semaphore Aug 21 '19 at 6:05
  • Wildfires have always been a threat in Japan. Due to a relative lack of stone and abundance of lumber, Japanese cities tended to be primarily built with lumber. The old capital Kyoto was burned a number of times. – Gort the Robot Aug 21 '19 at 13:29
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    @Steven Burnap: But burning a city is not a wildfire. There are a number of examples of European cities burning, the Great Fire of London being perhaps the most notable. But even leaving out the ones that were part of a sack, there are quite a few: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_town_and_city_fires – jamesqf Aug 21 '19 at 18:11
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    I once read about Madagascar legends of a great fire many centuries ago that allegedly burned the central highlands forests. If such a great fire happened, or was imagined to have happened, that would be an important historical wild fire. – MAGolding Aug 21 '19 at 19:36

Where were they? In lots of places, according to both scientific / archaeological and written evidence, but you are right in saying that Wikipedia gives the impression that wildfires and forest fires didn't happen for much of human history (see, for example, List of wildfires - nothing pre-19th century).

This impression is entirely false, but wildfires occurring in unpopulated areas or where people were not literate would not have been recorded in the way that they can easily done in more recent times. Further, fire was often used to clear land. Thus, in ancient and medieval Greece for example,

Fire became an essential component of the landscape.

In other words, fires outside of cities were probably not deemed significant enough to be recorded. Even when wildfires were recorded, there is little indication as to the size of the area affected; there were no government or environmental agencies paying investigators / researchers / scientists to do it.

Nonetheless, there are written accounts of wildfires (as well as scientific evidence) from the ancient, medieval and early modern periods.

In antiquity, Vitruvius, Thucydides, Theophrastus and others all made references to spontaneous wildfires. For example, Thucydides writes when referring to a fire made by the Peloponnesians during an assault on Plataea that

The consequence was a fire greater than any one had ever yet seen produced by human agency, though it could not of course be compared to the spontaneous conflagrations sometimes known to occur through the wind rubbing the branches of a mountain forest together.

Thucydides also mentions a fire started by a soldier which got out of control due to the wind. It seems that most references to wildfires in ancient sources do not mention specific incidents, just the fact that they happened. Homer, in the Iliad, uses a wildfire to describe Achilles' rage:

As a fire raging in some mountain glen after long drought - and the dense forest is in a blaze, while the wind carries great tongues of fire in every direction - even so furiously did Achilles rage...

and again when describing the armies charging into battle. The Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius (died c.55 BC) mentions in De Rerum Natura that some forest fires were caused by lightning. Though the fire itself is described as the "flamy heat with awful crack and roar", he then describes a positive end result:

The forest trees and baked the earth with fire, / Then from the boiling veins began to ooze / O rivulets of silver and of gold, / Of lead and copper too, collecting soon / Into the hollow places of the ground.

For the most part, though, ancient writers focused on deforestation caused by human actions, and the consequences thereof (e.g. lack of timber for shipbuilding).

In Spain, the article A comparison of the medieval and the current fire regimes in managed pine forests of Catalonia mentions that there are records of fires in the forests in the mountains near the city of Tortosa. The authors looked at the period 1370 to 1466 and found that

Throughout 1379-1466, the mean number of fires per year in the Port de Tortosa area was 0.62 (S.E.0.09), with two peaks, one in the 1400-1409 decade and the other in the 1420-1429 decade...

They also found that

Most fires currently occur in summer, and the same pattern is observed during 1370-1462 period.... These fires also account for most of the burned area or the suppression effort, respectively. In the Middle Ages period, however, autumn and winter fires were more abundant than at present.

The Russian Niconovsky Chronicle records huge fires for the years 1365 and 1371 when dark spots on the sun were also observed. The chronicle relates:

There were dark spots on the sun, as if nails were driven into it, and the murkiness was so great that it was impossible to see anything for more than seven feet. . . . Woods and forests were burning and the dry marshes began to burn and the earth itself burned, and great fright and terror spread among men.

In England's Sherwood Forest there was a fire in 1624:

‘In 1624 during the great drought of that year Sherwood Forest suffered a great fire, and White (Worksop, the Dukery, and Sherwood forest) quotes from a manuscript preserved in the British museum in which it says that there was such a mist of smoke and particles that people thought it was an eclipse of the sun, but when the true cause was discovered ‘there came command from the justices to raise the country there about and bring pickaxes, spades and shovels to make dikes and trenches to break the fire in the forest’. This fire, four miles long and half a mile wide, was stopped at the wood between Mansfield and Nottingham’. (Illingworth Butler 1946)

There is also ample evidence of fires elsewhere in the world. Stephen J. Pyne has written several books on fires, and covers the pre-European contact period in North America as well as the early European settler period. Also for North America, there is the article Medieval warming initiated exceptionally large wildfire outbreaks in the Rocky Mountains. Researchers found that between 800 and 1300, the frequency of fires increased and 83% of trees burned. One of the authors, Gonzalo Jiménez-Moreno of the UGR´s Department of Stratigraphy and Palaeontology explained that:

we have proved that the frequency of wildfires increases when temperatures increase, something which occurred during the Medieval Warm Period and which is also occurring at present.

Evidence from the Blue Mountains in Oregon and Washington shows that wildfires were actually more common before 1900:

After 1900 fires became extremely rare, indicating a change in controlling factors as livestock grazing and fire suppression became more prevalent.

One problem, though, is separating fires caused by human activity from naturally occurring ones. For example, in Bohemia and Moravia there are over 30 "place names of the type Zdar (burnt land)" dating from the 1230s but it is impossible to say if these relate to fires caused by human activity or if the occurred naturally.

It is evident, though, that human activity was significant:

Techniques have been developed for dating the year of fire occurrence and, to a lesser degree, for estimating the severity and extent of historic fires as well, thereby extending considerably the fire history for an area. By far, the overriding theme emerging from fire scar studies affirms the drop-off in fire frequency that accompanied Euro-American settlement of the North American continent, with the biggest reductions in lower-elevation forests. Similar dropoffs have been noted in Australia and elsewhere.

Source: Philip Omi, 'Forest Fires: a reference handbook' (2005)

Nonetheless, naturally occurring fires were noted in California:

one ethnographic report describes a massive wildfire in San Diego County prior to the time of European contact that resulted in a significant migration of Native American residents to the desert.

There is also, unsurprisingly, the problem of evidence that has disappeared over time:

Evidence for prehistoric fires has all but disappeared from European landscapes, and we can imagine that much of the global history of fire over the millennia remains undisclosed.

Source: Omi

In comments below, Pieter Geerkens makes the very valid point of distinguishing "between crown fires and others" and that it is only the (destructive) former which are likely to have been recorded. Undergrowth fires, on the other hand, are "part of the natural cycle" and Mr. Geerkens adds

Crown fires are much less frequent in the absence of active human suppression of undergrowth fires. It takes very high temperatures - thus an unusual undergrowth accumulation - to light bark and start a crown fire.

Not all destructive fires are crown fires, though. The term Stand-replacing fire is used for a fire that "kills most or all of the trees in the stand" (which includes crown fires). The article Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world by Stefan H. Doerr and Cristina Santín has more on this.

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  • I'd really like a good answer to clearly delineate between crown fires and others. While crown fires completely lay waste the forest, others are a necessary means by which the forest replenishes itself and prevents crown fires. For example many pine cones only release their seeds once heated in a moderate fire. The Smokey Bear mascot in the Western U.s. for much of the 20th century is to blame for many of the worst crown fires there since the 1920's, by making people think undergrowth fires are to be prevented - just the opposite. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 21 '19 at 11:54
  • @PieterGeerkens Little of what I have been able to access so far explicitly makes that distinction for pre-19th century, and there's the added problem of the distinction between fires started by humans and those with no human 'input'. I'm assuming (for the moment at least) that pre-modern literary sources record total destruction However, there are ancient sources (which I'll be adding shortly) which refer to 'branches rubbing together in the wind' (or such-like). – Lars Bosteen Aug 21 '19 at 12:44
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    It is highly likely that any "noteworthy forest fires" prior to 1900 are crown fires - because undergrowth fires are just part of the natural cycle, and generally don't get very big. Crown fires are much less frequent in the absence of active human suppression of undergrowth fires. It takes very high temperatures - thus an unusual undergrowth accumulation - to light bark and start a crown fire. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 21 '19 at 13:03
  • @PieterGeerkens Indeed, that is my point, though I guess I need to be clearer :). – Lars Bosteen Aug 21 '19 at 13:07
  • @PieterGeerkens, that's true in inland western North America. Along the California coast, it's the Santa Ana winds that turn ground fires into crown fires, in Australia, Eucalyptus trees release a flammable vapor that promotes crown fires, and in other places, climbing vines or tall brush provide the fire ladder needed. – Mark Aug 21 '19 at 22:41

Besides human writings, wildfires have also been recorded in tree rings and in charcoal records from sediment deposits.

For instance, studying sequoias' tree rings, a study from 2009 showed that:

A 3,000-year record from 52 sequoia trees show that California's western Sierra Nevada was droughty and often fiery from 800 to 1300.

During that period known as the Medieval Warm Period,

Natural fires occurred approximately every 5-15 years in sequoia groves.

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Since you are interested in records of wild fires from ancient times also , i am herewith providing a brief answer of record of one from India mentioned in epic Mahabharata ,which is considered as Itihasa or history.

In sanskrit forest fire/conflagration is called as Davagni or Davanala

In the epic Mahabharata there is an account of forest fire at Gangadwara which is modern day Haridwar ,In the Himalayan Region of India around 3102 BCE , which is date of Mahabharata according to popular tradition.

Brief background - It is mentioned that the parents of Kauravas and mother of Pandavas namely Dhritarashtra , Gandhari and Kunti when were retired in the forest near Haridwar to spend their last days , a forest fire suddenly broke out and all of them were overtaken by it. Below is excerpt from the epic.

P. 59 One day, that best of kings proceeded to a spot on the margin of Ganga. He then bathed in the sacred stream and finishing his ablutions turned his face towards his retreat. The wind rose high. A fierce forest-conflagration set in. It began to burn that forest all around. When the herds of animals were being burnt all around, as also the snakes that inhabited that region, herds of wild boars began to take themselves to the nearest marshes and waters. When that forest was thus afflicted on all sides and such distress came upon all the living creatures residing there, the king, who had taken no food, was incapable of moving or exerting himself at all. Thy two mothers also, exceedingly emaciated, were unable to move. The king, seeing the conflagration approach him from all sides, addressed the Suta Sanjaya, that foremost of skilful charioteers, saying,--'Go, O Sanjaya, to such a place where the fire may not burn thee. As regards ourselves, we shall suffer our bodies to be destroyed by this fire and attain to the highest goal.' Unto him, Sanjaya, that foremost of speakers, said,--'O king, this death, brought on by a fire that is not sacred, will prove calamitous to thee. I do not, however, see any means by which thou canst escape from this conflagration.

Then thy royal sire was overtaken by the forest-conflagration. Sanjaya, his minister, succeeded in escaping from that conflagration.

There are some more incidents of of wild fires mentioned Hinduism scriptures as well , but they are more close to mythology than an actual historical record and are typically not suited . The above is probably the best example of the case where there is very less part of mythology and more history involved.

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