California Wildfires History

California is hot, dry, and windy, creating the perfect conditions for wildfires. Throw the occasional arsonist and ill-considered gender reveal party into the mix and you have the ultimate recipe for disaster, one that costs the local economy billions of dollars every year.

But what causes these fires, what can the state do about them (if anything), and what are the biggest wildfires in CA history?

What Causes Wildfires in California?

The Golden State has always had a problem with wildfires, but it seems that the number is on the rise, so what’s happening?

There are a few factors at play here.

Extreme droughts have made the state dryer than ever over the last couple of years while climate change has exacerbated the issue.

Our world is heating up, and it’s causing no end of problems.

Human activity is a direct cause of climate change and, in many cases, it’s also a direct cause of wildfires.

Fire spreads when the conditions are right and it has plenty of fuel. But it needs a catalyst, and while lightning is responsible for starting many devastating wildfires, humans are often at fault.

The causes aren’t always direct, though.

As the Californian population increases, so does the number of homes, power lines, and general wilderness encroachment. There have been incidents in which everything from downed power lines to car problems have caused wildfires.

A wildfire that raged in 2018 and became one of the largest on record was thought to have been caused when a truck blew its tire, scraped a rim on the road, and created a disastrous spark.

The causes can also be a little more direct and idiotic, such as gender reveal parties, out-of-control campfires, garbage burning, and arson.

In 2020, a California couple use pyrotechnics during a gender reveal party and triggered a destructive fire that destroyed nearly 23,000 acres and claimed the life of a firefighter. A year later, a San Jose resident was charged with four counts of arson after he was discovered to have been setting fires near areas where a wildfire was burning.

Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires?

If wildfires thrive in hot and dry climates, why aren’t we seeing just as many in Arizona? Why do they always seem to pick on California?

Firstly, Arizona does have a lot of wildfires and they can be incredibly destructive. However, California has more forests and grasslands and there are also more residential areas built near this natural kindling. In simple terms, it had the conditions for wildfires and it also has the fuel.

When is Wildfire Season in California?

Most California wildfires rage in the summer when the weather is at its hottest and driest. However, they have also been known to occur in the colder months, including some recent blazes in December and January.

You can see a full list of reported wildfires on the Cal Fire website.

What are the Worst Wildfires in Californian History?

Many of the biggest wildfires in California’s history have occurred in the last few years. The damage that they do, along with the dangers that they pose, are causing a lot of headaches for state authorities.

What follows is a list of the most destructive wildfires in California history, as of early 2022. They are listed in order of the most acres burned, with information taken from the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) website.

August Complex Fire

  • Date of Fire: August 2020
  • Acres Burned: 1,032,648
  • Structures Destroyed: 935
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning Strike
  • Estimated Cost: $319 Million

A fire complex that originated as over 30 separate fires caused by lightning strikes. It spanned a number of counties in Northern California, including Mendocino, Glenn, and Shasta.

The fire raged for several months and took the life of 1 firefighter.

Dixie Fire

  • Date of Fire: July 2021
  • Acres Burned: 963,309
  • Structures Destroyed: 1,329
  • Cause of Fire: StillUnder Investigation
  • Estimated Cost: $1.15 Billion

The Dixie Fire burned over 1,500 square miles and is the largest single wildfire in California history. It destroyed over 1,300 buildings and took the life of 1 firefighter.

Mendocino Complex Fire

  • Date of Fire: July 2018
  • Acres Burned: 459,123
  • Structures Destroyed: 280
  • Cause of Fire: Human Activity
  • Estimated Cost: $257 Million

A complex of wildfires that burned for over three months in Northern California. It was a combination of two different wildland fires: the Ranch Fire and the River Fire.

SCU Lightning Complex Fire

  • Date of Fire: August 2020
  • Acres Burned: 396,624
  • Structures Destroyed: 222
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning
  • Estimated Cost: $26 Million+

The SCU Lightning Complex Fire didn’t claim any lives, but there were 6 injuries and damage to 222 structures.

Creek Fire

  • Date of Fire: September 2020
  • Acres Burned: 379,895
  • Structures Destroyed: 853
  • Cause of Fire: Unknown
  • Estimated Cost: $193 Million

The Creek Fire began in the Big Creek drainage area between Huntington Lake and Shaver Lake. It burned until Christmas Eve 2020.

LNU Lightning Complex Fire

  • Date of Fire: August 2020
  • Acres Burned: 623,220
  • Structures Destroyed: 1,491
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning/Arson
  • Estimated Cost: N/A

A complex of fires caused by lightning strikes that burned from August 17th, 2020, to October 2nd, 2020.

North Complex Fire

  • Date of Fire: August 2020
  • Acres Burned: 318,935
  • Structures Destroyed: 2,352
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning
  • Estimated Cost: N/A

One of the deadliest fires in California history, claiming a total of 16 lives.

Thomas Fire

  • Date of Fire: December 2017
  • Acres Burned: 281,893
  • Structures Destroyed: 1,063
  • Cause of Fire: Power Lines
  • Estimated Cost: $2.2 Billion

The Thomas Fire was caused by downed power lines and burned over 1,000 buildings. It also took the lives of a firefighter and a civilian and the resulting debris and mud flows were responsible for another 21 civilian deaths.

Cedar Fire

  • Date of Fire: October 2003
  • Acres Burned: 273,246
  • Structures Destroyed: 2,820
  • Cause of Fire: Human Activity
  • Estimated Cost: $1.3 Billion

The Cedar Fire was a deadly fire that raged through San Diego County in late 2003. It took 15 lives, injured 113 people, and burned nearly 3,000 buildings, including 2,232 homes.

Rush Fire

  • Date of Fire: August 2012
  • Acres Burned: 271,911 (in CA)
  • Structures Destroyed: 0
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning
  • Estimated Cost: N/A

The largest fire of the 2021 California fire season. It burned from the 12th to the 30th of August.

Rim Fire

  • Date of Fire: August 2013
  • Acres Burned: 257,314
  • Structures Destroyed: 112
  • Cause of Fire: Human Activity
  • Estimated Cost: $127 Million

Over 400 square miles burned as a result of an illegal campfire.

Zaca Fire

  • Date of Fire: July 2007
  • Acres Burned: 240,207
  • Structures Destroyed: 1
  • Cause of Fire: Human Activity
  • Estimated Cost: $118 Million

Only 1 building was destroyed by this 2007 fire, but it spanned over 240,000 acres and injured 43 people. It was said to have been caused by sparks from a grinding machine.

Carr Fire

  • Date of Fire: July 2018
  • Acres Burned: 229,651
  • Structures Destroyed: 1,614
  • Cause of Fire: Human Activity
  • Estimated Cost: $1.6 Billion

3 firefighters and 5 civilians died in this destructive fire, with a further 11 suffering from non-fatal injuries. It spanned Shasta and Trinity Counties.

Monument Fire

  • Date of Fire: July 2021
  • Acres Burned: 223,124
  • Structures Destroyed: 50
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning
  • Estimated Cost: N/A

A fire that destroyed over 220,000 acres and was caused by a lightning strike.

Caldor Fire

  • Date of Fire: August 2021
  • Acres Burned: 221,835
  • Structures Destroyed: 1,003
  • Cause of Fire: StillUnder Investigation
  • Estimated Cost: $260 Million

The Caldor Fire claimed two lives and burned over 221,000 acres in El Dorado and Amador counties.

Matilija Fire

  • Date of Fire: September 1932
  • Acres Burned: 220,000
  • Structures Destroyed: 0
  • Cause of Fire: Unknown
  • Estimated Cost: $120,000 (1932 cost)

The Matikija Fire was the largest wildfire in California for many decades. It occurred during the summer of 1932 and did over $120,000 worth of damage, claiming two lives in the process.

River Complex Fire

  • Date of Fire: July 2021
  • Acres Burned: 199,343
  • Structures Destroyed: 122
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning
  • Estimated Cost: N/A

A series of fires caused by lightning strikes that burned in Klamath National Forest, Siskiyou County.

Witch Fire

  • Date of Fire: October 2007
  • Acres Burned: 197,990
  • Structures Destroyed: 1,650
  • Cause of Fire: Power Lines
  • Estimated Cost: $1.3 Billion

The Witch Fire or Witch Creek Fire was caused by downed power lines and killed 2 civilians. It injured a further 55.

Klamath Theater Complex Fire

  • Date of Fire: June 2008
  • Acres Burned: 192,038
  • Structures Destroyed: 0
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning
  • Estimated Cost: $150 Million

Also known as the Bear Wallow Complex Fire, this wildfire was caused by lightning strikes and spanned over 190,000 acres.

Marble Cone Fire

  • Date of Fire: July 1977
  • Acres Burned: 177,866
  • Structures Destroyed: 0
  • Cause of Fire: Lightning
  • Estimated Cost: N/A

The Marble Cone Fire burned for several weeks in the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Fire Protection Methods

The state of California has spent a lot of money on firefighting and fire prevention, and as the problem grows, their efforts are intensifying.

Billions of dollars are spent on wildfire prevention, with the bulk of this money going toward the management of vegetation and the construction of fire-resistant buildings. Money is also being spent on fortifying old homes that were not made using fire-resistant materials.