Science

The Worst Fires in Recent California History

The Carr fire is even more alarming when you put it in context.

A firefighter sprays a hose in the background as fire rages in the foreground.
A Cal Fire firefighter mops up hot spots after the Carr fire moved through the area on Saturday in Redding, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There are 17 wildfires raging across the state of California right now. As of late morning Tuesday, they’ve consumed more than 200,000 acres of land. About 15,000 people have been put under a mandatory evacuation order since the start of the week. At least 12,000 firefighters are deployed across the state. The largest conflagration, the Carr fire, is only about 27 percent contained. The recent firestorms of Northern California have burned more than 900 homes since they began on July 23. At least eight people are dead. And that’s just what’s happening right now.

We are only a couple of months into this year’s fire season, and already nearly 500,000 acres in California have burned. There will be other fires in the coming months. And, according to an op-ed in the Orange County Register penned by Battalion Chief Drew Smith, a fire behavior analyst with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the state still has millions of acres of land—much of it adjacent to urban areas—that are vulnerable because they have not been exposed to fire for decades. Rainfall this year is 50 to 70 percent below normal. Temperatures in the past year across the state have been the hottest on record.

This isn’t the first difficult fire season we’ve seen recently, either. Last year went down as the worst year on record for California wildfires, and wildfire season has been getting longer and burning more land in recent years. On Monday, the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle ran a piece headlined “California’s Fire Season Is Now Year-round.” The same day, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times wrote a column titled, “When Fire Season Lasts All Year Long.” If you live  here, it feels unending.

Below is a timeline of the start dates for some of the biggest California fires of the past few years. An exhaustive list would be gigantic, so I’ve pulled out fires that were particularly noteworthy because of their path of destruction and the number of people they affected. This isn’t even close to a comprehensive list of fires that have blazed across the state, and burns that consume 300 acres can be as dangerous as burns that consume 10,000. Fires can last for weeks or months, and many of these fires are or at one point were burning simultaneously. California is the most populated state in the country. But for people who have never lived in a state consumed by wildfires, the scope of the destruction might not register. National news reports tend to treat each incident in isolation. But when you zoom out to see the big picture—the amount of land, the weeks of raging fires, the death toll, the thousands of firefighters, the loss of everything—the inescapability of massive wildfires starts to come into focus.

July 27, 2018: The Mendocino Complex fire in Mendocino County; 56,087 acres burned

This ongoing fire—which was originally classified as two separate fires—is only 10 percent contained. Cal Fire decided to rename the River fire and the Ranch fire the Mendocino Complex fire because they are in the same general area. The Mendocino area fires almost doubled in size overnight on Sunday. About 14,000 people have been ordered to evacuate Lake County.

July 23, 2018: The Carr fire in Shasta County; 110,154 acres burned  

The largest fire to start in 2018, the Carr fire has already engulfed more than 110,000 acres (roughly seven times the size of Manhattan) and is only 27 percent contained. More than 800 homes have been consumed, and about 3,400 firefighting personnel are on the scene to try to control the blaze. By the end of last week, the Carr fire started to produce “fire vortexes,” which are basically fire tornadoes that can jump over roads and rivers. As the hot air from the fire rises, it swirls into a plume that spews carbon monoxide and creates its own weather system.

At least six people have died in the Carr fire.

July 13, 2018: The Ferguson fire in Mariposa County; 57,846 acres burned

This fire is currently about 33 percent contained and has resulted in two firefighting-related deaths so far. After five years of drought and beetle infestation, the area is now filled with dead trees and highly combustible dry pine needles.

June 30, 2018: The County fire in Lake, Napa, and Yolo counties; 90,288 acres burned

The cause of this fire was an improperly installed livestock fence. It is fully contained.

Dec. 4, 2017: The Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties; 281,893 acres burned

The Thomas fire was the largest wildfire in modern California history, and it took about five weeks to contain it. About a month into the fire, rain season started, causing massive mudslides that took 21 people’s lives. More than 104,000 people had to evacuate their homes. Damages from the fire exceeded $2 billion, and more than 1,000 structures were destroyed. About 250,000 people in the area lost power.

Oct. 8–9, 2017: About 11 wine country and Northern California fires; more than 200,000 acres burned

The Nuns fire that ran through Napa and Sonoma counties started Oct. 8 and claimed 56,600 acres before it was contained in February of this year. Nearly 1,400 structures were destroyed. The same day in 2017, the Atlas fire began. It went on to burn 51,600 acres in Napa and Solano counties by the time it was contained in February. Also on Oct. 8, the Tubbs fire of Napa and Sonoma counties started. It remains the most destructive wildfire in California history. More than 5,600 structures were destroyed. The fire spread quickly, with winds reaching 50 miles per hour. Damages exceeded $2 billion, and 22 people died. And those three weren’t the only fires in the region at the time.*

July 16, 2017: The Detwiler fire in Mariposa County; 81,826 acres burned

The Detwiler fire destroyed more than 100 structures, and a mandatory evacuation was ordered for the town of Mariposa and surrounding area.

Aug. 26, 2016: The Blue Cut fire in San Bernardino County; 36,272 acres burned

The Blue Cut fire raged for seven days and led to the mandatory evacuation of more than 82,000 Californians. More than 300 buildings were destroyed.

Aug. 13, 2016: The Chimney fire of San Luis Obispo County; 46,344 acres burned

The Chimney fire burned for 25 days and swallowed 70 structures near Lake Nacimiento. At its peak, nearly 4,000 firefighting personnel were on the scene.

July 22, 2016: The Sand fire in Los Angeles County; 41,432 acres burned

The Sand fire lasted nearly two weeks, destroyed 18 homes, and spurred the evacuation of about 20,000 people from the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles. The fire was pushed into the Angeles National Forest shortly after it sparked. Hundreds of horses, goats, chickens, and other farm animals were rescued.

A NASA satellite took a photograph of the scared land from the Sand fire from space.

July 22, 2016: Soberanes fire in Monterey County; 132,000 acres burned

The Soberanes fire ravaged the Big Sur coast, consuming nearly 60 structures during the 83 days it took to contain it. With more than 5,000 firefighters on the ground, the Soberanes fire ballooned to one of the most expensive firefighting operation in modern U.S. history. The rains that followed the Soberanes fire caused a landslide in early 2017 that ruined Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and closed Highway 1 on the California coast.

June 23, 2016: The Erskine fire in Kern County; 48,019 acres burned

The Erskine fire took two lives and destroyed nearly 300 homes before it was fully contained.

If you live in California long enough, at some point, fire will probably become a part of your life. And while each news cycle seems to happen in a vacuum, the fires are all connected—in cause, in the scope of damage, and in the pain they leave behind.

Correction, Aug. 1, 2018: Due to an editing error, this piece misstated the date that the Tubbs fire began in California. It was Oct. 8, not 9.