California is famous for its horrendous summer fire conditions.
At many times in the year, the temperature is dry and hot, creating the perfect conditions for wildfires.
Californian wildfires are usually sparked by lightning storms moving through the region, fallen power lines, and unfortunately human factors (both intentional and unintentional).
They are also spurred on by the strong, dry Diablo winds in the north and the Santa Ana winds in the south.
Fires in California are becoming increasingly concerning due to increasing numbers of people living in fire prone areas and the increasing likelihood of extreme weather events caused by climate change.
The state of California has only kept accurate records of fires since 1932, so fires before then are not included in this list.
Here is a list of the worst wildfires in California’s recent history, ranked by number of deaths.
Deadliest Californian Wildfires
1. Camp Fire (2018)
Facts: The Camp Fire was a swift but deadly fire. It is named after Camp Creek Road, where the fire originated. The fire ripped through neighboring communities, including the community of Concow and approached the built-up area of Paradise, CA.
It was the most expensive natural disaster of 2018 in the world, topping $16.5 billion. It was also the most deadly fire in the United States in exactly 100 years, eclipsed only by the Cloquet fire of 1918 which killed over 450 people.
Many people may remember the Camp Fire due to the widely criticized response of President Donald Trump who claimed that the forest floor should have been ‘raked’ to prevent the fire. Presumably, he meant that more hazard reduction burns should have taken place. He also botched the town name, calling it ‘Pleasure’ instead of ‘Paradise’. Oops!
2. Griffith Park (1933)
Facts: The facts about exactly how the Griffith Park fire occurred are unknown. However, it occurred within Griffith Park on a day when over 3,000 men were working on clearing brush and creating trails for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Workers dropped what they were doing to attend the fire. However, there was no one at the location trained in fire fighting, which led to chaos. Without water, the workers attempted to quell the fire with shovels. Even when trained firefighters arrived, they found it very difficult to fight the fire due to the sheer numbers of disorganized people working to put the fire out. Tragedy struck when winds changed direction and overran the workers attempting to put out the fire.
3. Tunnel Fire (1991)
Facts: The Tunnel Fire, also known as the Oakland Firestorm, is remarkable because it caused its own winds which flamed the fire along. A fire that produces its own weather system is known as a ‘firestorm’ and is a common characteristic of megafires in Australia such as the Black Saturday (2009) and Gospers Mountain (2019) fires.
In Oakland, the fire was initially spurred on by the infamously dry and hot Diablo winds coming from the Diablo Valley. Cooler coastal air coming from the coast led to erratic atmospheric conditions which led to the firestorm. At its peak, this fire was destroying one building ever 11 seconds.
4. Tubbs Fire (2017)
Facts: The Tubbs fire destroyed a remarkable 5,643 buildings. Most of these were houses in Santa Rosa which was devastated by the blaze. Remarkably, this was one of many simultaneous blazes which burned in the horrendous 2017 California fire season. Most of the fire’s spread occurred on October 9, although it was many days before it was under control. Perhaps the most remarkable story to emerge from this fire was that of the Safari West Wildlife Preserve. Its 76 year old owner, Peter Lang, single-handedly fought off the fire. He did not have a portable firefighting pump and was instead armed with just a firehose. His efforts very well may have saved over 1,000 animals within the reserve.
5. Laguna Fire (1970)
Facts: The Laguna fire is also known as the Kitchen Creek or Boulder Oaks fire. By size, it is the 12th largest fire in California’s modern history (at the time it was the 3rd largest). This fire was fanned by the Santa Ana winds. Unfortunately, the strength of these winds also grounded all but one firefighting aircraft as well, hampering firefighting efforts significantly. The fire burned for 12 days and killed 16 people.
6. Rattlesnake Fire (1953)
Facts: The Rattlesnake Fire of 1953 was caused by an arsonist who deliberately lit two fires on the one day. The first fire was rapidly put out, while the second ran away up Rattlesnake Canyon. Firefighters fought the fire from below when, just before 10pm, the fire turned and began to rush toward the firefighters. 9 firefighters fled uphill while 15 fled downhill. All firefighters who fled downhill were burned as they tried to flee on foot.
7. Cedar Fire (2003)
Facts: The Cedar fire was lit by a hunter who was hoping the fire would catch the attention of rescuers. Clearly, he lost control of it! The fire spread rapidly, fanned by 60 mile per hour winds. By the time the fire had been brought under control, it had devastated several communities and killed 15 people including one firefighter. The man who lit the fire was sentenced to 6 months in a work-furlough program, 40 days of community service, a $9600 fine and 5 years of probation. His punishment was made worse by the fact that he originally lied about deliberately setting the fire.
8. Loop Fire (1966)
Facts: When a fire occured in the Angeles National Forest, firefighters attempted to create control lines that would halt the fire in its place. Unfortunately, during the final section of the control operation, the Loop fire gusted toward the firefighters at a remarkable rate and overcame them. The fire moved straight up the 2,200-foot chimney canyon in less than one minute to engulf the firefighters. Reports of deaths from this fire vary. It is known that 10 firefighters died on the spot, while one or two died in the hospital in the coming days.
9. Carr Fire (2018)
Facts: The Carr fire got its name because it began on Carr Powerhouse Road in Shasta County, CA. Coincidentally, it was also caused by a car. The car’s tire went flat, causing the rim of the tire to scrape against the asphalt and create sparks. The fire killed three firefighters and five civilians. It is also remarkable for the enormous 18,000ft tall fire whirl and wind speeds that exceeded 143 miles per hour. Four of the civilian deaths were due to inability (due to lack of access to a vehicle) or refusal to evacuate from properties that came under attack from the fire.
From the above fires, we can deduce that the majority of deadly wildfires in California occur in October and November. It is also worth noting that some of the largest fires in California (by area) have occurred in the past 20 – 30 years, but due to enhanced firefighter and public safety measures, firefighters are less likely nowadays to be overcome by fires. We are much more aware now of the risks of fires suddenly changing directions with wind changes.