There are few things in nature more destructive, terrifying, and yet awe-inspiring as fire. So it is only natural that when a story needs the protagonists to be menaced by a force that is deadly, unstoppable, and visually striking all in one, look no further than a fire. And the larger the fire, the greater the threat.
The Great Fire is a fire taken to its natural extreme: when it grows so vast in size that it can stretch for miles in every direction and can burn continuously for days, weeks, or even months on end, consuming everything in its path: trees, buildings, people, up to entire forests and cities.
The cause of the fire can be natural or manmade, accidental or deliberate. Once ignited, the fire spreads with frightening speed, often stoked by strong winds and unseasonably dry conditions. The protagonists as well as the local authorities may try to intervene and extinguish the blaze, but more often than not, they will find themselves completely overwhelmed, and unable to do anything but watch helplessly as everything around them goes up in smoke. Regardless of the cause, the end result is the same: vast swathes of land reduced to cinders and ashes; homes destroyed, lives upended; scattered survivors left in grief and despair.
People often use the term "forest fire" (or "bushfire" in Australia) to describe these kinds of events, but the term "wildfire" is technically more accurate, as they can occur in any kind of vegetation, not just forests. Alternatively, the term "city fire" or "urban fire" can be used when the fire occurs in an urban area. A sufficiently large fire of either type can eventually become a ''firestorm'', a fire that burns with such heat and intensity that it can create and sustain its own wind system.
On the natural disaster scale, the Great Fire occupies the size category between House Fire (when the fire is usually limited to just the protagonist's house) and World-Wrecking Wave (where the whole planet is on fire). May be part of a Natural Disaster Cascade if the fire was ignited by an earlier disaster, such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or meteor strike. Often triggers a Citywide Evacuation. On a more positive note, may end with Hope Sprouts Eternal as nature slowly begins to reclaim the burned area.
Compare and contrast The Great Flood (with water instead of fire).
May overlap with The Tokyo Fireball, where a city experiences multiple Great Fires and keeps rebuilding itself over and over again. A Battle Amongst the Flames may take place during such a fire, particularly if it's in the midst of a war.
See also Big Disaster Plot.
- Moriarty the Patriot: At the climax of The Final Problem arc, William and his subordinates set all of London ablaze to encourage citizens of all classes to work together and draw them to the Thames for water to see his final showdown with Sherlock.
- Vinland Saga: Canute threatens to unleash one of these in the second arc in order to intimidate his way to victory over the English. The English lords pretend to be subservient to Canute and his occupying Danish forces, but secretly support the guerrilla resistance of their own king-in-exile. Then one evening, around sundown, Canute takes one of the lords out into the lord's fields and shows him Canute's soldiers holding torches there, ready to burn the area to the ground. Canute then has the man look every which way, and as far as he can see, all over the countryside, hundreds and hundreds of more torch lights are held up, ready to go (presumably with the lords of those other lands also dragged out into their fields to witness the spectacle). Canute then lays down his ultimatum: the English can either attempt to continue their covert resistance, in which case Canute will order the entire countryside put to the torch, or they can submit for real and give up resisting him. Within a couple of months of this demonstration the English King has died of poison... er, "illness" and the English have submitted entirely to Canute.
- Wonder Woman: Dead Earth is a post-apocalyptic Elseworld miniseries following an amnesiac Wonder Woman waking up to Earth completely decimated from an event called "The Great Fire". Even worse is the fact that she ends up discovering early on that she is apparently to blame, and it's not until the climax that we discover why: when Themyscira was completely nuked, a furious Diana proceeded to deliver the mother of all beatdowns on Superman (as he was indirectly responsible for its fate), which was so superhumanly fast and brutal that not only did it successfully kill him, it ignited the atmosphere, exploding the world.
- A Game of Cat and Cat: "(In)Effective Communication": Starts with a Epigraph that implies that an accidental forest fire that was big enough to be called an Incident, happened due to not knowing what alcoholic substances were being carried with the party.
"At times, it can be difficult to resist the urge to garrote someone after you discover that they withheld information that would have been useful before you walked into that spider-infested forest without a map. Before you attract the attention of the local constable and meet your doom at the hands of another rope, keep in mind three things. One, you are a stranger in this land, and few would entrust strangers with their darkest secrets, such as the haberdasher's affair with the apothecary. Two, it is difficult to appraise the worth of information in the eyes of others; the fact that the cobbler is literate might not come up in casual conversation. Three, your grasp of the local language is probably imperfect. That said, you are responsible for asking for clarifications and providing them when necessary. However, there is no excuse for not telling someone that the antidote for spider bites uses vodka as a solvent."
-Diary of Leon Belmont, dated three days after the infamous Burning of Atterheim Woods incident. The bolded text was pressed so deeply into the page that the impressions in the following pages were visible 900 years after they were written
- Bambi: at the climax of the film, Bambi and his friends are forced to flee from a raging forest fire started by the hunters' unattended campfire. One of the most well-known and defining depictions of a wildfire in all of pop culture, this film even led to the U.S. Forest Service creating the character of Smokey Bear. note
- Grave of the Fireflies: The plot kicks off when Seita and Setsuko lose their mother in the firebombing of Kobe during World War II, Allied warplanes dropping thousands of small incendiary pellets that set fire to everything they touch. Things only get worse from there.
- The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving: After a meteor impact and resulting landslide blocks the river, the Great Valley suffers through a prolonged drought; a lightning strike quickly ignites a wildfire that devastates much of the Valley and forces the protagonists and their families to run for their lives. Even after water is restored, the dinosaurs have to share what little vegetation is left in order to survive until the Valley can recover, leading to this period of time being called "The Time of the Great Giving".
- The Lion King (1994): The Pride Lands suffer a prolonged drought under Scar's reign and quickly turn into a roaring wildfire after a lightning strike at the film's climax. Though downplayed: the fire doesn't actually do much other than provide a dramatic backdrop for the final battle; Scar and his hyena minions are the main threat to the heroes rather than the huge flames burning right next to them.
- Promare: 30 years ago, people all over the world began spontaneously manifesting fire powers along with an uncontrollable drive to burn things. The public panicked over the fire users — dubbed the Burnish — and things quickly escalated, resulting in the Great World Blaze, a series of raging worldwide wildfires and city fires so cataclysmic it killed off half the world's population. As a result, in the present, Burnish are often regarded with widespread fear and revulsion, and treated as terrorists.
- The Wind Rises: While taking the train to Tokyo, Jiro experiences the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. He helps a girl he just met (his future wife Naoko) and her maid escape to safety, but when they look back, they see the earthquake has set the city on fire as thick and dark smoke covers the skies.
- City on Fire is about a... city on fire. After a disgruntled oil refinery employee sets his workplace ablaze, the resulting conflagration quickly spreads to the surrounding buildings, thanks to a water shortage and the city's hilariously poor zoning (courtesy of the mayor's questionable dealings) that had the refinery placed right in the middle of town.
- Firestorm: A convoluted prison escape scheme sets off a raging wildfire in Wyoming. Firefighter Jesse Graves rides in to save civilians caught in the blaze, but ends up getting caught up in a massive conspiracy involving a bloodthirsty gang of escaped felons and a $37 million stash of hidden loot in what could accurately be called "Die Hard in a forest fire."
- Godzilla: In his cinematic debut, the titular King of the Monsters sets Tokyo ablaze during his rampage, reducing the city to ashes and killing thousands in the process. Some Japanese critics and moviegoers of the time found these scenes of widespread destruction to be in poor taste, as the film premiered less than a decade after Tokyo had suffered extensive firebombing during World War II that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
- Shin Godzilla: After getting injured in an air strike by American stealth bombers, Godzilla retaliates by unleashing his signature atomic breath upon his attackers and all of his surroundings, incinerating everything for miles. The sequence ends with a montage of shots of the different wards of Tokyo completely engulfed in flame.
- In Those Who Wish Me Dead, a pair of hitmen set off a forest fire to smoke out a witness they were hired to silence when he runs into the woods. The rest of the story is a "Die Hard" on an X battle between the hitmen and the firefighter who found the witness, and in a bit of high karma, the leader of the hitmen ends up being killed by the fire.
- The Towering Inferno concerns a giant fire in a glass highrise and efforts to stop the fire and get survivors out safely.
- Carrie: Carrie begins her Roaring Rampage of Revenge by telekinetically setting her school on fire and sealing the exits. She then rampages through her hometown of Chamberlain, Maine, downing power lines, blowing up gas stations, and destroying fire hydrants to prevent the fire department from using them. In all, around 900 people are killed in the fires and Chamberlain becomes a Dying Town by the time of the epilogue. (This part was left out of the film adaptation because they didn't have the budget).
- The Colour of Magic: Twoflower, a visiting insurance clerk and the Discworld's first tourist, attempts to introduce the concept of "in-sewer-ants" to the city of Ankh-Morpork, with predictable results when an innkeeper, in cheerfully entrepreneurial fashion, attempts to capitalize on the idea and sets half the city alight. The fire is noted to have some rather dramatic effects as it sweeps through the more unusual parts of the cities, such as burning in unnatural colors at wizards' workshops, causing terrifying explosions when its first tendrils reach petroleum tanks, and producing sweet smoke from the perfume-sellers' shops and hallucinogen airs from the drugmasters'.
- Moving Pictures reveals that Ankh-Morpork has been burned down repeatedly, the most famous incident being three centuries earlier during the Ankh-Morpork Civil War when both sides simultaneously set fire to the city to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.note In the book, filmmakers recreate the incident for a movie and manage to make it even more spectacular, because while much of the real city is made of stone, the set used in the film is made of wood and canvas, so absolutely everything burns.
- A Hole in the Fence: A huge fire breaks out in Epnoi Forest and begins spreading from the Forbidden Zone towards the farmlands. Although volunteers arrive to help out, the firefighting is hampered because police and soldiers have to keep people from going into the Zone. Suddenly and mysteriously, the fire is put out by a huge stream of fire-fighting foam shot from far away. When Grisón and his friend Raclot hear about the catastrophe, both of them find interesting the fact that the fire started in and was extinguished from the Forbidden Zone.
- The Odor Of Thought, a short story by Robert Sheckley, sees a man stranded on an alien planet with no equipment or weapons to protect himself from the native fauna. He quickly figures out that the local predators track their prey by reading its thoughts, and discovers that, as the only sentient being on the surface, he is capable of projecting any image of himself he wants, from an even bigger predator to a planet-consuming wildfire. When he tries the latter, however, he finds it so intoxicating that he almost loses himself to his own delusion, before a ship from Earth arrives and rescues him... from a real planet-wide wildfire, which he unwittingly started by projecting a self-image so strong that he convinced even the flora around him to spontaneously combust.
- The Roman Mysteries: In the seventh entry The Enemies of Jupiter, the villains' plot involves starting a fire to burn down the city of Rome, beginning with the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, as revenge for the Romans' destruction of Jerusalem years ago. Jonathan attempts to intervene, but the fire starts anyway by accident, and burns for days thereafter, devastating huge swathes of the city. Many lives are lost in the blaze, and Jonathan, blaming himself for the disaster, abandons his friends and his identity to go full-on Death Seeker.
- Safari: When Henry, Mansfield, and their carriers are trekking through some tall grass, they end up having to run from a huge brush fire. They manage to avoid it by going out into an open area and building another fire. This fire would use the oxygen in the area to keep the brush fire from reaching them.
- Slaughterhouse-Five: Billy Pilgrim and several other Allied POWs are being held prisoner in the titular slaughterhouse in Dresden, Germany when they experience an Allied firebombing attack and resulting firestorm that completely razes the city to the ground. Pilgrim and his compatriots survive because their makeshift prison is partly underground, protecting them from the conflagration, but he is traumatized by the aftermath. Truth in Television, as writer Kurt Vonnegut experienced firsthand the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, which claimed roughly 25,000 lives. So it goes.
- In Warrior Cats, the most notable fire in the series is the forest fire in Rising Storm. ThunderClan is forced to flee their territory and shelter with RiverClan, several cats die, and the following book involves them dealing with the aftermath of the burned forest.
- Wolf Pack: The book begins with Ranger Garrett Brock aiding in putting out a huge fire that's engulfed the forest. It's during this moment that he sees the wolf bringing her cubs out of the woods before going back in... and never coming out.
- Game of Thrones: The penultimate episode, "The Bells", has Queen Daenerys Targeryen with her dragon, Drogon, burning down King's Landing as she loses her sanity which is the result of losing her closest companions and her two dragons and the betrayal of her adviser in the previous episodes. Viewers get to see what's like being under attack by dragon fire from the perspective of Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Cersei and Jaime Lannister where they watch people being burned alive with all the buildings toppled. And while Daenerys is firebombing the city, her Unsullied led by Grey Worm massacre the civilians and soldiers who are trying to escape. By the end of the episode and at the beginning of the Series Finale, nothing much is left of King's Landing except the ruins of the Red Keep with the Iron Throne being intact.
- The two-part episode opening season 10 of Murdoch Mysteries, "Great Balls of Fire", is set during and after the 1904 Great Fire of Toronto, up to including actual archive footage of the event.
- 9-1-1: Lone Star: The crossover episode "Hold The Line" is about a massive wildfire threatening the city of San Angelo, Texas. Volunteers from all over the country head to Texas to help fight the blaze, including several members of Station 118 from Los Angeles, giving Owen Strand and his crew the chance to meet their parent series counterparts and save lives together.
- Walking with Dinosaurs: the second episode "Time of the Titans" features a forest fire midway through the episode that the young Diplodocus are forced to flee. While the lumbering protagonists manage to slowly plod their way to safety, the narrator makes it clear that numerous other dinosaurs were trapped in the blazing inferno, their mournful and futile cries for help heard throughout the night over the roar of the flames.
- Doctor Who: In the Fifth Doctor adventure "The Visitation", the Doctor is shown to be partly responsible for causing the 1666 Great Fire of London in his battle with that story's alien menace. He is actually aware of what he's done, and not wanting to significantly alter human history, declines Tegan's suggestion that they extinguish the small blaze before it can spread.
- The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis, two cities so corrupt and depraved that God Himself decides to completely wipe them off the face of the Earth with a storm of fire and brimstone. God spares Lot and his family, warning them to leave but not to look back. However, Lot's wife does exactly that, and upon seeing the flaming ruins of the city, is turned into a pillar of salt.
- Magic: The Gathering: Red is the color that is both most strongly associated with fire and in possession of the bulk of the game's land destruction. Naturally, some such land destruction effects, like Cleansing Wildfire and Obliterate, are flavored as massive fires.
- Yu-Gi-Oh!: The "Burning Land" spell card depicts a large fire spread across a mountain range and a forest. Fittingly, the spell's effect destroys all Field Spell cards.
- Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War: Ace Combat Zero gives us the fittingly titled Mission 11, "The Inferno", in which an industrial city in Belka, named HOFFNUNG (German for 'hope', so when you hear Belkan civilians shouting "Abandon Hoffnung!"...) is being indiscriminately carpet-bombed and shot with Tomahawk cruise-missiles by an Osean B-52 squadron, leaving the city in the titular inferno. Numerous civilians and buildings are killed/destroyed in the bombing, and most of your Ustian allies are utterly disgusted by what they see. Indeed, it is easily the darkest mission in the game...until Mission 12.
- Brothers in Arms: In Hell's Highway, we have the level "Baptism of Fire", where the Dutch city of Eindhoven is firebombed by the German Luftwaffe. City blocks are either blown to smithereens or, worse, turned into blazing infernos. One of the few buildings spared from destruction is an Abandoned Hospital located in the outskirts of the city, occupied by the German Army. The level "Hell's Highway", the penultimate and titular level of the game, has entire sections of the road consumed by miles of flames so intense that the black smoke they produce blots out the sun, turning what's supposed to be late afternoon into pitch-black darkness.
- In Final Fantasy XIV, the Calamity that ushered in the Seventh Umbral Era was the result of Bahamut breaking free from confines of Dalamud. The mad primal laid waste to Eorzea with his use of Teraflare, bombarding the entire continent with a massive storm of fireballs, irreversibly changing the landscape and disrupting the land's aether so badly that climate patterns were affected. Notably, much of the Twelveswood was razed by this event, resulting in the elementals suffering greatly diminished power and a large uptick in the number of poachers and thieves in the Black Shroud.
- Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance: The Serenes Forest was consumed by fire when frenzied Begnion mobs began killing the Heron laguz, wrongly believing they had assassinated a beloved apostle. What remains from the Serenes Massacre is a charred and blackened wasteland, which becomes a battlefield between Ike and the corrupt senator Oliver when the two parties go searching for a survivor.
- Life Is Strange: Before the Storm: An emotionally distraught main character kicks over a trashcan with a burning photo inside, which ignites a massive forest fire that looms large over the rest of the story until the epilogue. This is given further importance by the school play that's the centerpiece of the story, The Tempest.
- Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Part of the backstory is about "the Legendary Fire" that ravaged the city of Labyrinthia and left no survivors. The fire was indirectly caused by two young children playing where they weren't supposed to be, and spread as far as it did, and killed as many as it did, thanks to a contaminant in the local groundwater that caused the townspeople to fall unconscious when a bell made of pure silver was rung.
- Fate/stay night: The background of Shirou Emiya was that he was a survivor of a fire that consumed a sizeable part of Fuyuki City 10 years prior. The fire was in fact revealed to be the result of the "Fourth Holy Grail War" contest his father, Kiritsugu, was involved in. The Holy Grail was discovered to be tainted, as any wishes made on it would be granted in a destructive manner. Kiritsugu chose to have the Grail destroyed, but the attempt caused the Grail to unleash energy setting a wide radius around it ablaze. The resulting destroyed area wasn't redeveloped, and instead turned into a park, but the cursed nature of the fire ensures that plants in the park barely thrive. The Light Novel Fate/Zero explores the events leading up to the fire.
- In Homestuck, Jack Noir uses the Red Miles attack while fighting with Davesprite and Bro on John's planet, the Land of Wind and Shade. Unfortunately, due to LOWAS' rivers and oceans of oil, this ignites a fire that rapidly spreads throughout the entire planet. It is only able to be put out through John "doing the windy thing."
- The Great Fire of Rome of 64 C.E. Burning for 3 days, the blaze destroyed 3 out of Rome's 14 districts and heavily damaged another 7. It was the source of a popular myth that the Emperor Nero played the fiddle while watching the city burn. Many believe that Nero started the fire, but what is known is that he took full advantage of it to rebuild the city to his liking, and used Christians as a scapegoat for the calamity, leading to hundreds being arrested, tortured, and executed. Also, Nero couldn't have played the fiddle since this instrument was only invented roughly a thousand years after his time.
- The Great Fire of London of 1666. Starting out in a bakery on Pudding Lane shortly after midnight on September 2, the fire spread rapidly thanks to the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who failed to perceive the threat and deploy appropriate firefighting resources in time. Burning for the better part of a week, the firestorm consumed over 13,000 buildings and completely gutted the old Medieval City of London. Though one interesting silver lining: the fire is credited by some with helping end the Bubonic Plague in London by destroying much of the filthy and squalid parts of town where the disease still lingered on, and no further outbreaks occurred there after 1666.
- On a single day, October 8, 1871, the Great Lakes region of the United States was struck by numerous disastrous fires. The Great Chicago Fire gutted the city center of Chicago, destroying over 17,000 buildings. Meanwhile, the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin torched over 1,200,000 acres of forest to become the largest wildfire in American history. Elsewhere, multiple fires burned across Michigan, destroying the cities of Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron. The occurrence of so many deadly fires on a single day led some to believe that a comet passing over the area was responsible, though this theory has been discredited. In reality, the entire region had been suffering a lengthy drought that year, and on October 8, exceptionally strong winds from an incoming cold front swept through the area, conditions ripe for disaster to strike.
- On April 18, 1906, the city of San Francisco was struck by an earthquake. However, the majority (around 80%!) of the damage came from the subsequent fires, rather than the quake itself. A great deal of it was from attempts to combat the quake-set fires by dynamiting buildings to create firebreaks, but the fire chief, the only person who knew how to do this properly (by setting the dynamite to implode the building and smother fires) had been killed in the quake, resulting in the firefighters causing the very thing they were trying to stop.
- The Great Fire of Thessaloniki, Greece on August 18, 1917, was one of the most significant events in the history of the city. It started as a simple stove fire, but within 32 hours, 32% of the city (including the historic city center) had been all burned to the ground. While very few people were killed in the actual blaze, it led to 70% unemployment and left some 70,000 people homeless (out of a total population of about 150,000). This laid the groundwork for a complete redesign of the city, headed by French architect Ernest Hébrard. This made Thessaloniki the city that it is today and, in the long run, solved many of the problems that plagued the city for years prior to the fire.
- The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 struck on September 1 at 11:58AM, when many people were cooking lunch. As a result, upended cooking fires and broken gas mains ignited firestorms across the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, completely torching anything that hadn't been destroyed by the earthquake. In the Hifukusho-Ato area, a fire whirl (a whirlwind made of fire) struck an open field where many of the survivors had taken refuge, killing 38,000 people in only 15 minutes. This was the deadliest natural disaster in Japan's history.
- Firebombing of industrial centers and civilian populations was an effective (if horrific) strategy commonly deployed by both sides during World War II. Unlike the blast effects of conventional explosives, the fires ignited by incendiary bombs could spread on their own, and thus, were a more efficient use of a bomber's payload capacity. Most effective of all, however, was a combination of the two, as the explosives would "soften up" buildings for the incendiaries, blowing out windows and flameproof roofs and exposing the flammable insides so that they would burn more easily. Notable cities that were targeted by such attacks include Coventry, London, Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo.
- The summer of 1988 was a hot and dry one, and as a result, Yellowstone National Park suffered over 50 wildfires that year, burning in total nearly 800,000 acres of land. The Yellowstone fires helped change widespread attitudes towards wildfire management: previously, the prevailing mindset was that fires were inherently bad for the environment, and, consequently, forestry services tended to focus on suppression rather than mitigation. As a result, decades of suppressing smaller fires led to overgrowth that helped fuel the raging infernos of 1988. Today, it is widely understood that smaller, controlled burns are a necessary part of any effective fire management strategy.