The grim comparisons continue to be made to fires of yesteryear, and as the death toll continues to rise in Northern California's staggeringly devastating swarm of October wildfires, it's eye-opening to understand — especially for those who don't know a lot of the history of our state's fire season — in perspective, exactly how bad these fires are. The final number of deaths, particularly in the Tubbs Fire, which took several parts of northern Santa Rosa by surprise in the overnight hours of Sunday and Monday with little to no warning issued by county authorities, won't be known for days, and the toll from the other 15 (or so) fires still burning may rise as well. Fire is part of nature and part of our dry and rugged coast, but when it emerges, fed by strong October winds, from the wilds and uninhabited mountains and into towns and cities, it becomes a far different and more tragic thing. The fires below, not really ranked, reflect some of the worst ever to hit the state, many in just the past few years. Some are "worst" because they lasted so long and scorched so much land, some because they destroyed so many homes, and a few because they took so many lives.

Rim Fire (Tuolumne County, 2013)
The at-the-time terribly sad, destructive, and lengthy wildfire burning at the edge of Yosemite National Park in the fall of 2013, the Rim Fire ended up being the third largest in California history, burning 257,314 acres or 402 square miles. It burned from August 17 to October 24, but destroyed only 11 homes. At the interior of the fire, per Wikipedia, because this was in the middle of the drought, some logs were smoldering well into the unusually dry winter of 2013-2014. Charges against the hunter who was believed to have sparked the blaze, Keith Matthew Emerald, were ultimately dropped in 2015 after two witnesses who fingered him as the culprit died. 10 people were injured as a result of the Rim Fire, but no deaths were reported. The cost associated with the fire: $127 million. — Jay Barmann

Basin Complex Fire (Monterey County, 2008)
Over the course of six days, the Basin Complex Fire consumed over 162,818 acres of land in rugged terrain near Carmel and Big Sur. According to the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade's report, the Basin Complex Fire was composed of two different fires, the Basin Fire and the Indians Fire. The former started due to a lightning strike, while the latter started because of an unattended campfire in the Los Padres National Forest. At the time, it was the most expensive fire in California history, with $120 million spent fighting it. It was also the second most expensive in U.S. history. The fire famously threatened the historic Tassajara meditation retreat, tucked in an otherwise mostly uninhabited canyon due east of Big Sur (which was again threatened by last year's Soberanes Fire), and inspired this book about the efforts of four Buddhist monks who stayed behind to battle the blaze and save the majority of the Tassajara compound. — Jessica Lachenal


Wine Country Fires of 1964
The Chronicle noted this week that the current fires of October 2017 have some eery similarity in location to a swarm of fires that burned almost identical areas of Napa and Sonoma counties in September of 1964, 53 years ago. The Hanley Fire, which began with a discarded cigarette on Hanley Ranch on Mt. St. Helena, went on to burn 53,000 acres and spawn multiple other brush fires, destroying 84 homes (some in Santa Rosa), along with 24 summer cabins and countless farm buildings. Like the Tubbs Fire, it also entered Calistoga, where it burned 84 buildings and displaced 2,500 residents. It spawned the Nun's Canyon Fire, which burned 7,000 acres in the same canyon where the current Nuns Fire began, as well as two other fires, the Mt. George Fire and Green Valley Fire. Despite burning tens of thousands of acres, these fires did not cost any lives, partly because the area was less inhabited than it is now. — Jay Barmann

Map depicting the area of the Laguna Fire: Wildfire Today

The Laguna Fire (San Diego County, 1970)
The worst of the wildfires that burned across California from September 22 - October 4, 1970, the Laguna Fire ignited on the morning of September 26, 1970 in the Kitchen Creek area of San Diego County's Laguna Mountains. Caused by a downed power line and fed by the Santa Ana winds, within 24 hours it had spread 30 miles — and the winds also stymied firefighting efforts, as they were so brutal firefighting aircraft couldn't leave the ground. In the end, eight people were killed, 382 buildings were destroyed, and 175,425 acres were left charred. — Eve Batey

This is a photo from the Gap Fire in 2008, which burned over 9,000 acres in a very similar area to the Painted Cave Fire in the chaparral-covered Santa Ynez Mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, but did not destroy as many homes. (Getty Images)

Painted Cave Fire (Santa Barbara County, 1990)
The Painted Cave Fire, also sometimes called the Paint Fire, determined to be the result of arson, started on June 27, 1990 with a brush fire along Highway 154 and Painted Cave Road. It would go on to spread extremely quickly, jumping Highway 101 and entering residential areas of Santa Barbara, killing one person and burning hundreds of homes. By one estimate, 427 structures were burned, but by the Weather Channel's count, 642 structures were destroyed in the fire. Allegedly, a man named Leonard Ross confessed to a girlfriend that he had started the fire to "burn out" a neighbor, and the girlfriend then told her minister, which led to charges being filed and then dropped against Ross for lack of evidence. — Jay Barmann

A car burns in front of a burning home during Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 in Middletown. (Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)

Valley Fire (Lake County, 2015)
To this day, Lake County is still dealing with the depressing aftermath of the September 2015 Valley Fire — and their hands are full yet again with the current Sulphur Fire, burning an estimated 2,500 acres and 55 percent contained according to the latest reports from Cal Fire. Many of us in the Bay Area remember the Valley Fire for its destruction of Harbin Hot Springs (which still continues to rebuild) and record-setting rate of ignition which led to several dramatic escape videos. The Valley Fire still remains the third most destructive wildfire in state history in terms of structures burned (1,955), though the fatality count was relatively quite low at four victims. — Joe Kukura

Image: Wikipedia Commons via Dave Schumaker

Old Fire (San Bernardino, 2003)
A second harrowing specimen from the southern California “Fire Siege of 2003,” after the Cedar Fire, the Old Fire took six lives and consumed more than 90,000 acres in the San Bernardino mountains. More than 80,000 people were evacuated from their homes before the first rains and snows of the year fortunately arrived to help extinguish the blaze. You may remember the name Rickie Lee Fowler, who was charged with the arson that caused the fire and whose bizarre, four-year legal proceedings eventually resulted in a death penalty verdict on felony murder-arson charges. Fowler still remains alive and on death row — but more significantly, authorities believe that fire caused the Waterman Canyon mudslide two months later in which 14 people died. — Joe Kukura

Photo Station Fire smoke "as seen from the desert to the north" by Rennett Stowe [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Station Fire (Los Angeles County, 2009)
Two firefighters were killed fighting the Station Fire, which burned from August 26 to October 16 of 2009 across the Angeles National Forest. All told, the fire destroyed 160,577 acres, 89 homes, and 120 other structures. According to officials, the fire was started by an unknown substance found near the point of origin. Though a $150,000 reward was offered for information that would uncover a suspect, the focus of their investigation, a man named Babatunsin Olukunle who was later convicted for starting a small fire days before the Station blaze, could not be tied to the case. While "new clues" reportedly surfaced in 2014, the alleged arsonist remains at large. — Eve Batey

Photo via Phil Gibbs/Flickr

Witch Fire (San Diego, 2007)
At 197,990 acres of land consumed, the Witch Fire was the second largest wildfire of California's 2007 wildfire season, but it became the fifth most destructive in state history, burning 1,650 structures and causing two deaths. Similar to many wildfires, including the 22 currently burning throughout the state, wind played a major role in how quickly the fire spread, with many primarily blaming the Santa Ana winds, which clocked in at about 100 mph during the fire. It would be revealed later that a downed power line was to blame for the start of the fire, with SDG&E conceding "that it was their equipment that sparked some of the blazes and has already paid out roughly $2 billion in damages," though they never admitted liability for the fire, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. — Jessica Lachenal

Image: Wikipedia Commons via NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Cedar Fire (San Diego, 2003)
San Diego is entirely consumed in smoke in the above image of 2003’s Cedar fire, the largest of the red fire dots seen right at the U.S.-Mexico border. Pending the outcome of the current North Bay fires’ investigation, the Cedar fire remains the largest wildfire in California history caused by human activity. In circumstances depressingly familiar to today’s fires, eleven other active wildfires were already burning in the region when lost hunter Sergio Martinez started a small fire in hopes that rescuers would find him. The Santa Ana winds blew that fire way out of control, incinerating 62,000 acres in the first 12 hours alone, ultimately taking 15 lives, destroying more than 2,000 homes and nearly 600 other buildings, and causing an estimated $1.24 billion in damage.
— Joe Kukura

Image: Dougtone via Flickr

Griffith Park Fire (Los Angeles, 1933)
Angelenos and tourists alike know Griffith Park for the Griffith Observatory (above) and the famous view it provides of the Hollywood sign. That observatory has a tragic footnote, as the Griffith Park Fire that broke out in the early months of its construction is still the deadliest fire in Los Angeles history. New Deal-era workers making an (at the time) sweet 40 cents an hour had signed up by the thousands to work on roads in the park, and when a small fire broke out they were instructed to bat it back with shovels. This just made the fire larger, winds kicked in, and an estimated 29 of the workers perished in the fire that day, despite the fire only spanning 47 acres. It remained the deadliest single wildfire in California until this week. — Joe Kukura

The Tunnel Fire a.k.a. the Oakland Hills Firestorm (1991)
Locals older than 30 likely recall this deadly fire, which ripped through the hills of North Oakland and southeastern Berkeley the weekend of October 19-20 in 1991. It all began as a small (5-acre) Berkeley grass fire that firefighters failed to completely extinguish. By the morning of October 20th, it had reignited and blazed southwest, fed by the 65 mph Diablo winds in the area. It wasn't until 9 p.m. that the wind died down, allowing officials to get control of the blaze. By then, 25 people were dead, 150 were injured, and 2,843 single-family homes and 437 apartments and condos were destroyed. The total area was only 1,520 acres, but the damage was a jaw-dropping $1.5 billion. LeVar Burton fans might recall the 1993 TV movie on the blaze, titled Firestorm: 72 Hours in Oakland. — Eve Batey

Destroyed homes in Glen Ellen in Sonoma County, October 9, 2017. (Getty Images)

The Current Northern California Fires (Tubbs, Nuns, Atlas, Mendocino Lake Complex, Cascade, etc.)

The count of the dead stands at 35 as of Friday, October 13. Victims are still being identified, and stories of survival and tragedy are going to be told for weeks. What's clear, however, especially as common causes are potentially revealed in this swarm of fires, all of which broke out within hours of each other on Sunday, October 8 and Monday, October 9, 2017, will, all combined, go down in state history as the deadliest and one of the largest wildfire events to occur. The total acreage burned is sure to be over 200,000, putting the combined fires on par with some of the largest on record — but to put it in perspective, the Rush Fire, which burned for over two weeks in Lassen County in August 2012, burned 315,560 acres (490 square miles), but it was in such remote land that there were no fatalities and zero structures burned. The Tubbs Fire alone, in the course of just a few hours, likely killed dozens and destroyed over 3,500 homes, or 5 percent of Santa Rosa's housing stock. At the risk of being overly pessimistic, this group of fires will likely top lists such as this one for some time to come — and let's hope the fires are contained as soon as possible with as little further destruction as possible to the towns still in their paths, and that this is not a harbinger of fire seasons to come.

All related coverage of the North Bay wildfires on SFist.

Front page of the Chronicle, September 22, 1964