Santa Ana winds in California expand fires and spread smoke over hundreds of miles, as in this October 2007 satellite image
The Rim Fire consumed more than 250,000 acres (100,000 ha) of forest near Yosemite National Park, in 2013

This is a partial and incomplete list of California wildfires. California has dry, windy, and often hot weather conditions from spring through late autumn that can produce moderate to severe wildfires. Pre-1800, when the area was much more forested and the ecology much more resilient, 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of forest and shrubland burned annually.[1] California land area totals 99,813,760 or roughly 100 million acres, so since 2000, the area that burned annually has ranged between 90,000 acres, or 0.09%, and 1,590,000 acres, or 1.59% of the total land of California.[2] During the 2020 wildfire season alone, over 8,100 fires contributed to the burning of nearly 4.5 million acres of land.

Wildfires in California are growing more dangerous because of the accumulation of wood fuel in forests, higher population and greater electricity transmission and distribution lines.[3][4][5] United States taxpayers pay about US$3 billion a year to fight wildfires, and big fires can lead to billions of dollars in property losses.[6] At times, these wildfires are fanned or made worse by strong, dry winds, known as Diablo winds when they occur in the northern part of the state and Santa Ana winds when they occur in the south. However, from a historical perspective, it has been estimated that prior to 1850, about 4.5 million acres (17,000 km2) burned yearly, in fires that lasted for months, with wildfire activity peaking roughly every 30 years, when up to 11.8 million acres (47,753 km³) of land burned.[7][8] The much larger wildfire seasons in the past can be attributed to the policy of Native Californians regularly setting controlled burns and allowing natural fires to run their course, which prevented devastating wildfires from overrunning the state.[7]

More than 350,000 people in California live in towns sited completely within zones deemed to be at very high risk of fire. In total, more than 2.7 million people live in "very high fire hazard severity zones", which also include areas at lesser risk.[9]

On lands under CAL FIRE's jurisdictional protection (i.e. not federal or local responsibility areas), the majority of wildfire ignitions since 1980 have been caused by humans. The four most common ignition sources for wildfires on CAL FIRE-protected lands are, in order: equipment use, powerlines, arson, and lightning.[10]

A 2023 study found that these wildfires are affecting the California ecosystem and disrupting the habitats.[11][12] It found that in the 2020 and 2021 fire seasons 58% of the area affected by wildfires occurred in those two seasons since 2012.[11][13] These two fires destroyed 30% of the habitat of 50 species as well as 100 species that had 10% of their habitats burn. 5-14% of the species' habitats burned at a "high severity."[14][15]

Statistics

Graphs are unavailable due to technical issues. There is more info on Phabricator and on MediaWiki.org.

Area burned per year

Remains of houses destroyed in the Oakland firestorm of 1991
Satellite image from October, 2003 including Cedar Fire, one of the largest wildfires in California history

Starting in 2001, the National Interagency Fire Center began keeping more accurate records on the total fire acreage burned in each state.[16]

Year Fires Acres Hectares Ref
2000 7,622 295,026 119,393 [17]
2001 9,458 329,126 133,193 [18]
2002 8,328 969,890 392,500 [19][20]
2003 9,116 1,020,460 412,970 [21][22][23]
2004 8,415 264,988 107,237 [24][25]
2005 7,162 222,538 90,058 [26][27]
2006 8,202 736,022 297,858 [28][29]
2007 9,093 1,520,362 615,269 [17][30]
2008 6,255 1,593,690 644,940 [17]
2009 9,159 422,147 170,837 [31][32]
2010 6,554 109,529 44,325 [33]
2011 7,989 168,545 68,208 [34][35]
2012 7,950 869,599 351,914 [36]
2013 9,907 601,635 243,473 [37][38]
2014 7,865 625,540 253,150 [39][40]
2015 8,745 893,362 361,531 [41]
2016 6,986 669,534 270,951 [42][43]
2017 9,560 1,548,429 626,627 [44][45]
2018 8,527 1,975,086 799,289 [46][47]
2019 7,860 259,823 105,147 [48]
2020 9,639 4,397,809 1,779,730 [49]
2021 8,835 2,568,948 1,039,616 [50]
2022 7,490 362,455 146,680 [51]
2000-22 Mean 8,292 974,980 394,560
2000-22 Median 8,328 669,534 270,951

A 2015 study[52] addressed whether the increase in fire risk in California is attributable to climate change.[53]

Largest wildfires

The 20 largest wildfires according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.[54]

Name County Acres Hectares Start date Structures Deaths Notes
1. August Complex Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Tehama, Trinity, Shasta 1,032,648 417,898 August 2020 935 1
2. Dixie Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, Tehama 963,309 389,837 July 2021 1,329 1 Largest single source wildfire in California history[55]
3. Mendocino Complex Mendocino, Lake, Colusa, Glenn 459,123 185,800 July 2018 280 1
4. SCU Lightning Complex Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Merced, Stanislaus 396,624 160,508 August 2020 222 0
5. Creek Fresno, Madera 379,895 153,738 September 2020 856 0
6. LNU Lightning Complex Colusa, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Yolo 363,220 146,990 August 2020 1,491 6
7. North Complex Plumas, Butte 318,935 129,068 August 2020 2,352 15
8. Santiago Canyon Orange, Riverside, San Diego 300,000 120,000 September 1889 0 0 The fire dates before 1932, when reliable fire records began.
9. Thomas Ventura, Santa Barbara 281,893 114,078 December 2017 1,063 23 Fatalities (2 direct, 21 indirect) attributed to the fire include 1 firefighter and 1 civilian directly, 22 deaths in later mudslides, with 1 never recovered.[56]
10. Cedar San Diego 273,246 110,579 October 2003 2,820 15
11. Rush Lassen 271,911 110,038 August 2012 0 0 This fire burned an additional 43,666 acres (17,671.0 ha) in Nevada, for a total of 315,577 acres (127,709.5 ha).[57][58]
12. Rim Tuolumne 257,314 104,131 August 2013 112 0
13. Zaca Santa Barbara 240,207 97,208 July 2007 1 0
14. Carr Shasta, Trinity 229,651 92,936 July 2018 1,614 8
15. Monument Trinity 223,124 90,295 July 2021 50 0
16. Caldor El Dorado, Amador, Alpine 221,835 89,773 August 2021 1,003 1
17. Matilija Ventura 220,000 89,000 September 1932 0 0
18. River Complex Siskiyou, Trinity 199,343 80,671 July 2021 122 0
19. Witch San Diego 197,990 80,120 October 2007 1,650 2
20. Klamath Theater Complex Siskiyou 192,038 77,715 June 2008 0 2

Deadliest wildfires

The 20 deadliest wildfires according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.[59]

Name County Acres Hectares Start date Structures Deaths Notes
1. Camp[60][61][62] Butte 153,336 62,050 November 2018 18,804 85 51 identified from Paradise, 11 from Magalia, 7 from Concow, 1 from Chico, remaining not publicly identified as of February 2019
2. Griffith Park Los Angeles 47 19 October 1933 0 29 Deaths were RFC workers fighting the fire
3. Tunnel Alameda 1,600 650 October 1991 2,900 25
4. Thomas Ventura, Santa Barbara 281,893 114,078 December 2017 1,063 23 Fatalities (2 direct, 21 indirect) attributed to the fire include 1 firefighter and 1 civilian directly, 22 deaths in later mudslides, with 1 never recovered.[56]
5. Tubbs Napa, Sonoma 36,807 14,895 October 2017 5,643 22
6. North Complex Plumas, Butte 318,935 129,068 August 2020 2,352 15
7. Cedar San Diego 273,246 110,579 October 2003 2,820 15
8. Rattlesnake Glenn 1,340 540 July 1953 0 15 All deaths were firefighters trying to outrun the fire
9. Loop Los Angeles 2,028 821 November 1966 0 12 All deaths were members of the El Cariso Hotshots
10 Hauser Creek San Diego 13,145 5,320 October 1943 0 11
11. Inaja San Diego 43,904 17,767 November 1956 0 11
12. Iron Alps Complex Trinity 105,855 42,838 August 2008 10 10
13. Redwood Valley Mendocino 36,523 14,780 October 2017 544 9
14. Harris San Diego 90,440 36,600 October 2007 548 8
15. Canyon Los Angeles 22,197 8,983 August 1968 0 8
16. Carr Shasta, Trinity 229,651 92,936 July 2018 1,614 8
17. LNU Lightning Complex Colusa, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Yolo 363,220 146,990 August 2020 1,491 6
18. Atlas Napa, Solano 51,624 20,891 October 2017 781 6
19. Old San Bernardino 91,281 36,940 October 2003 1,003 6
20. Decker Riverside 1,425 577 August 1959 1 6

Most destructive wildfires

The 20 most destructive wildfires according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.[63]

Name County Acres Hectares Start date Structures Deaths Notes
1. Camp[60][61][62] Butte 153,336 62,050 November 2018 18,804 85 Town of Paradise destroyed[64]
2. Tubbs Napa, Sonoma 36,807 14,895 October 2017 5,643 22
3. Tunnel Alameda 1,600 650 October 1991 2,900 25
4. Cedar San Diego 273,246 110,579 October 2003 2,820 15
5. North Complex Plumas, Butte 318,935 129,068 August 2020 2,352 15 Towns of Berry Creek and Feather Falls mostly destroyed[65][66]
6. Valley Lake, Napa, Sonoma 76,067 30,783 September 2015 1,955 4
7. Witch San Diego 197,990 80,120 October 2007 1,650 2
8. Woolsey Ventura, Los Angeles 96,949 39,234 November 2018 1,643 3
9. Carr Shasta, Trinity 229,651 92,936 July 2018 1,614 8
10. Glass Napa, Sonoma 67,484 27,310 September 2020 1,520 0
11. LNU Lightning Complex Colusa, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Yolo 363,220 146,990 August 2020 1,491 6
12. CZU Lightning Complex Santa Cruz, San Mateo 86,509 35,009 August 2020 1,490 1
13. Nuns Sonoma 54,382 22,008 October 2017 1,355 3
14. Dixie Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, Tehama 963,309 389,837 July 2021 1,329 1 Town of Greenville mostly destroyed
15. Thomas Ventura, Santa Barbara 281,893 114,078 December 2017 1,063 23 2 direct, 22 indirect deaths were caused by the Montecito mudslides
16. Caldor El Dorado, Amador, Alpine 221,835 89,773 August 2021 1,003 1 Town of Grizzly Flats mostly destroyed
17. Old San Bernardino 91,281 36,940 October 2003 1,003 6
18. Butte Amador, Calaveras 70,868 28,679 September 2015 965 2
19. Jones Shasta 26,200 10,600 October 1999 954 1
20. August Complex Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Tehama, Trinity, Shasta 1,032,649 417,898 August 2020 935 1

Areas of repeated ignition

The summer 2008 wildfires were widespread and deadly, with at least 3,596 wildfires of various origins burning throughout Northern and Central California, for around four months

In some parts of California, fires can recur in areas with histories of fires. In Oakland, for example, fires of various size and ignition occurred in 1923, 1931, 1933, 1937, 1946, 1955, 1960, 1961, 1968, 1970, 1980, 1990, 1991, 1995, 2002, and 2008.[67][68] Orange County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, and Los Angeles County are other examples. Orange and San Bernardino counties share a border that runs north to south through the Chino Hills State Park, with the park's landscape ranging from large green coastal sage scrub, grassland, and woodland, to areas of brown sparsely dense vegetation made drier by droughts or hot summers. The valley's grass and barren land can become easily susceptible to dry spells and drought, therefore making it a prime spot for brush fires and conflagrations, many of which have occurred since 1914. Hills and canyons have seen brush or wildfires in 1914, the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and into today.[69]

On occasion, lightning strikes from thunderstorms may also spark wildfires in areas that have seen past ignition. Examples of this are the 1999 Megram Fire, the 2008 California wildfires.[citation needed], as well as both the LNU and SCU Lightning Complex fires of 2020.

See also

References

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