California wildfires have been among the most destructive in American history, and with the state in the teeth of a prolonged drought, they're only getting more numerous and more dangerous. Every fire season, from late summer until fall, seems to bring more blazes, more acres destroyed, and more money spent battling them. Things are getting so bad that the very idea of "fire season" is becoming an anachronism.
But wildfires aren't a new phenomenon, with massive blazes going back to the founding of the state, including maybe the worst ever in terms of acres burned, the Santiago Canyon Fire, taking place in 1889. Since then, advances in firefighting technology and tactics have made fires easier to contain, but often at terrible costs in lives, such as during several fires in the '50s and '60s. The deadliest fires often happen because of a combination of large fires, scorching hot weather, changes in wind direction, and the terrain the fire is spreading into.
Even with the hot, dry weather, and numerous warnings to not start fires in vulnerable areas, fires break out. Sometimes it's an act of nature, such as a lightning strike causing forest fires - but other times it's arson or carelessness. These incidents are harshly prosecuted, with the arsonist behind one of the most deadly fires in California history receiving the death penalty.Here are the worst fires in California history, ranked first by number of lives lost, then by acres.
Mendocino Complex Fire
Date: started July 27, 2018
Cause: low humidity and record triple-digit temperatures
Acreage burned: 290,692
Even though the Mendocino Complex Fire – comprised of two neighboring fires, the Ranch Fire and River Fire – hasn't produced any casualties, it has earned the unfortunate title of California's largest wildfire. The acreage burned is roughly 454 square miles–nearly the size of Los Angeles.
"It is extremely fast, extremely aggressive, extremely dangerous,” Scott McLean, a deputy chief with Cal Fire told Los Angeles Times. “Look how big it got, just in a matter of days... Look how fast this Mendocino Complex went up in ranking. That doesn’t happen. That just doesn’t happen."
McLean is talking about the massive droughts California has suffered since 2012. The dry conditions combined with large areas of brittle brush and record-high temperatures made the area primed for massive wildfires.
The fires led to evacuations in Mendocino, Lake, and Colusa counties. There has not been much damage (and fortunately, no deaths), since a majority of the massive fire is in remote areas.
The Carr Fires started on July 23, 2018, and firefighters and emergency officials fought to contain the deadly flames for days after. The fires destroyed 1,000 homes and damaged over 300 buildings since its start. A dozen historic buildings crumbled due to the wildfires. Roughly 5,000 homes in Redding, CA, were threatened by the blaze, according to California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As the fire progressed, the high winds produced a "firenado," a vortex created by a fire's high heat.
Three firefighters died while combating the flames. At least three more Marin County firefighters were injured while working to contain the fires. Braden Varney perished after his bulldozer slid down a ravine as he worked to create a firebreak. The two other names have not been released. Melody Bledsoe (70) and her two great-grandchildren, James (5) and Emily Roberts (4) perished in the fires.
Date: December 2017
Acreage burned: 45,500
Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen had some grim words about the fire: "The prospects for containment are not good... Really, Mother Nature’s going to decide when we have the ability to put it out."
A combination of strong wind and thick, dry bush allowed this fire to rage through 282,000 acres. To put in perspective, that much land is tens of thousands times larger than all of New York City. Roughly 5,000 people had to evacuate to avoid the flames that over 6,900 firefighters struggled to contain.
By January 2018, firefighters lost containment of the fire as it migrated to the Bear Heaven area. The rocky terrain made it impossible for firefighters to access the fire, so water drops were made via helicopter on January 3, 2018. Due to the continued displacement and destruction caused by the Thomas Fire, President Donald Trump declared the fire a major natural disaster and ordered federal assistance for fire victims.
Griffith Park Fire
Date: October 1933
Acreage burned: 47
A small fire by the standards of the huge wildfires that currently plague California, the 1933 Griffith Park fire was nonetheless the deadliest in California history. Thousands of workers were toiling to build LA’s Griffith Park, mostly clearing brush and debris. A small fire started in a pile of debris and quickly raced through hastily built firebreaks.
There were no firefighters in the area and no pumped water, so the untrained workers tried to beat the fire out with shovels and heavy cloths. This only made the blaze worse, and a botched backfire attempt pushed the fire into a canyon, where it overwhelmed a group of workers. Fire fighters finally arrived, but were hampered by the horde of untrained workers everywhere – and when it was all over, 29 people were dead, and 150 injured.At the time, the media blamed a Communist arsonist, but the true cause of the disaster was almost certainly the incompetently set backfires meant to contain the initial fire.