Natural Disasters

The Worst California Wildfires in History 

Mike Rothschild
Updated February 12, 2020 10.6k views 20 items

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.
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Griffith Park Fire
Griffith Park Fire is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Worst California Wildfires in History
Photo: Joseph Dowdy/Getty Images

Date: October 1933
Cause: Unknown
Acreage burned: 47
Deaths: 29

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.
Oakland Firestorm
1991 Oakland firestorm ... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Worst California Wildfires in History
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Date: October 1991
Cause: Brushfire
Acreage burned: 1,520
Deaths: 25

The costliest fire in California history began as a simple brush fire in the backyard of a home in a suburban Oakland community. Embers from the extinguished fire hit dried out ground and sparked a fire that raced through the Berkeley Hills, with embers being blown by strong winds around the area, starting more small fires that eventually merged. The dry air, closely packed wooden houses on steep hills, and high canyon walls whipped up strong winds and temperatures that eventually hit an astounding 2,000 degrees. The fire was so powerful that ash blew all the way across the bay into Candlestick Park, where an NFL game was being played.

When the wind finally shifted, firefighters were able to put the blazes out. But 25 people were killed, 150 were injured, 2,500 houses were destroyed, and over $1.5 billion in damage was done.
Cedar Fire
Cedar Fire is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Worst California Wildfires in History
Photo: Sgt Giles M. Isham/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Date: October - December 2003
Cause: Signal fire in dry wood
Acreage burned: 273,246
Deaths: 15

The Cedar Fire is considered to be the largest and most destructive in California history. It broke out in Cleveland National Forest in central San Diego County, on October 25, when novice hunter Sergio Martinez became lost, and rather than shout for help (which would have scared away animals) he started a signal fire.

The blaze quickly grew out of control, and within a few hours had burned 5,000 acres. Errors in the initial response, compounded by the dryness of the surrounding area, led the fire to explode to 62,000 acres with 10 hours of it breaking out. It moved so quickly that residents in nearby Wildcat Canyon had no time to escape, and 12 people were killed almost instantly – with three firefighters killed a few days later. Within a day it had expanded 30 miles and 100,000 acres, and was threatening San Diego two days later. Airports in both San Diego and Los Angeles were badly disrupted by the smoke, and air travel across the country was snarled.

The Cedar Fire was finally contained on November 5, but continued to burn in some areas for another month. To the outrage of local residents, Sergio Martinez was given only supervised work and a relatively small fine.
Rattlesnake Fire
Rattlesnake Fire is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Worst California Wildfires in History
Photo:  Pacific Southwest Region 5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Date: July 1953
Cause: Arson
Acreage burned: 1,340
Deaths: 15

Arsonist Stan Pattan started several small fires in Mendocino National Forest, and while one was quickly contained, the other spread quickly. While that fire was eventually contained, a small spot fire started near the firefighters' campground, which quickly burned while the men were taking a dinner break. The firefighters made a run for it, but most were killed by the fast moving blaze.

The fire changed how forest fires were handled, and led to a number of improvements in tactics. Pattan was eventually caught and sent to prison for several years.