On a typical October Saturday in 1918, people in the Cloquet and Moose Lake areas of northeastern Minnesota went about their chores and prepared for the evening’s leisure activities. The air was a bit smoky, but that was normal that time of year, and they were not concerned. No one had any idea they were about to experience the state’s worst natural disaster to date.

"Forest fires were an old story… The increasing smokiness and rising wind all afternoon, with the sun like a red ball in the murky sky, hadn’t frightened me."

Kathryn Elfes Gray

In less than 15 hours, 1,500 square miles would be burned by the combined power of over 50 individual forest fires that high winds transformed into an uncontrollable blaze. Over 52,000 people were affected by the fires of 1918, losing houses, barns, businesses, livestock, and even their lives. The fires killed 453 people, making the event the deadliest wildfire in Minnesota history. More than 35 communities were burned in some way; some towns, like Cloquet, Brookston, and Moose Lake, were almost completely destroyed.

Ruins of Cloquet two days after the fire, October 14, 1918. Carlton County Historical Society.

The story of the fires of 1918 is one of survival in the face of unimaginable terror and destruction. It’s a story of communities rallying in support of their neighbors. And it’s a story of rebuilding stronger after tragedy. The fires are a cautionary tale, full of inspiration, perspective, warning, and hope.

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