The history of wildfires in both recent and less recent California memory is dotted with truly tragic events like the 2018 Camp Fire, as well as incomprehensibly large and destructive events that were not necessarily as tragic because few homes or people were lost to them.
At the time of the wine country fires in October 2017, the most loss of life that had occurred in a California wildfire was in a freak event in Los Angeles' Griffith Park in 1933, which killed New Deal-era workers who were constructing the park's roads. The combined death toll of the 2017 fires was 44, though that total includes four deaths in the concurrent Cascade Fire in Yuba County, and nine deaths in the Redwood Valley Complex fires in Mendocino County. And they caused $14.5 billion in damage, with the Camp Fire eclipsing that figure a year later with $16.5 billion in losses, nearly 19,000 structures destroyed, and 85 civilian deaths.
The three major fire "complexes" burning across Northern California will go down in the record books for their sheer size. But because they were ostensibly caused by lightning strikes and not broken power lines, they have tended to burn in relatively unpopulated areas — though the destruction of the fires in Sonoma, Napa, and Solano counties is likely to rise over 1,000 structures once they are contained, if not higher.
Below is a ranking of the ten biggest wildfires, in terms of total acres burned, in California state history, with notes on their comparative destructiveness and deadliness. This is not meant to in any way minimize the current devastation in multiple counties around the Bay, but with the media repeating that these are some of the biggest fires in state history, some perspective is in order.
But when they say fire seasons have been getting worse, that is true — nine out of ten of these big blazes have come in the last 17 years.
10. The Matilija Fire - Ventura County, 1932
Once the largest fire in state history — a title it held until the Cedar Fire in 2003 — the Matilija Fire burned around 220,000 acres of what's now known as the Los Padres National Forest. Named for Matilija Creek, the fire first appeared in a drought-striken part of what used to be called Santa Barbara National Forest. And it burned in an area that had previously burned about a decade earlier. Despite its size, no structure damage or deaths are attributed to the fire.
9. The Carr Fire - Trinity and Shasta Counties, 2018
It would be overshadowed within a few months by the Camp Fire, and it was overshadowed by the larger and concurrent Mendocino Complex fires, but you may or may not recall the Carr Fire from the summer of 2018. It burned nearly 230,000 acres (340 square miles) over the course of five weeks, caused over $1.6 billion in damages, and claimed eight lives. The fire began accidentally, likely from sparks from the rim of a travel trailer along the highway in the Whiskeytown district of the Whiskeytown-Trinity-Shasta National Recreation Area. The fire destroyed nearly 1,600 buildings, many in and around Shasta and Redding.
8. The Zaca Fire - Santa Barbara County, 2007
The Zaca Fire scorched some 240,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest and San Rafael Mountains of Santa Barbara County between July and August of 2007. It was determined to be caused by sparks from a grinding machine on private property, and went on to burn for about seven weeks. The destruction was contained to unpopulated forest land, with only one Forest Service outbuilding and some campsites damaged.
7. The 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, became the third largest wildfire in California history for at least a few years, 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.
6. The Rush Fire - Lassen County, 2012
The largest blaze of the 2012 fire season in California, the Rush Fire scorched 315,000 acres (492 square miles) of largely sagebrush, 271,000 acres of which were in California in August — the rest was in Washoe County, Nevada, which only lightly impacted Burning Man that year. The extent of the destruction, structure-wise, was a single barn, but the fire also burned a lot of habitat for the greater sage-grouse.
5. The Cedar Fire - San Diego County, 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, burning 273,000 acres, and causing an estimated $1.24 billion in damage.— Joe Kukura
4. The Thomas Fire - Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, 2017
The enormous Thomas Fire, which was one of multiple wildfires burning in Southern California at the end of 2017 shortly after the devastating Wine Country fires up north, ended up burning almost 282,000 acres before being contained. The fire forced evacuations for over 100,000 residents and cost over $204 million to fight, ultimately causing over $2.2 billion in damages. The burnt land from the fire, particularly around the wealthy area of Montecito, led to major mudslides in January 2018 following heavy rains.
3. The CSU Lightning Complex Fires - Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties, August 2020
The CSU Lightning Complex, which represents about 20 currently burning fires in three separate zones, has burned over 347,000 acres (542 square miles) and counting. So far, zero deaths have been attributed to the fire, and only 12 structures have been destroyed, as it has been burning in remote areas northeast of San Jose. The fire still could wreak more havoc, and cause more death and destruction in the coming days, but firefighters have begun to record some containment.
2. The LNU Lightning Complex Fires - Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano, and Yolo counties, August 2020
As of today, this complex, which represents two fully disconnected flanks of fire with the Sonoma Mountains in between them, has burned over 350,000 acres (547 square miles). It has been the most destructive of the fires caused by lightning in mid-August 2020, with at least 871 structures destroyed, and counting. Five deaths have been attributed to the fire as well, including three people in Napa County who were part of the same household.
1. The Mendocino Complex Fires - Mendocino, Lake, Colusa, and Glenn counties, July 2018
Part of the extremely active 2018 fire season, the Mendocino Complex ended up burning nearly 460,000 acres across four counties, but only destroyed 280 buildings in the process. One firefighter died battling the fires, which included the named Ranch Fire in Mendocino National Forest. The fire raged from late July to mid-September, at which point there were still hot spots within the Ranch Fire footprint, but the fire was declared 100-percent contained.