List: California's Most Destructive Wildfires and How They Started

A look at the most destructive fires in California history, how they started and the devastating aftermath.

In just a few days, the monster Camp Fire in Northern California tore through a Butte County community to become the state's most destructive wildfire on record.

Its staggering rate of destruction places it atop a list of historic wildfires in California, where four of the state's 20 most-destructive wildfires started in the August 2020. They are the Creek, CZU Lightning Complex, North Complex and LNU Complex fires.

Below, a look at the most damaging wildfires on record in the state. This list was updated Sept. 21, 2020.

The figures, obtained from CAL FIRE, are based on the number of structures — homes, barns, garages, sheds, commercial properties and other buildings — that were destroyed. 

This video animation shows wildfires in California since 1910 and highlights the state's 10-largest fires. Credit: ESRI

1. Camp Fire, November 2018

The Camp Fire burned through Northern California's Butte County with stunning speed, burning through the town of Paradise. Cal Fire reported more than 18,800 structures destroyed. Eighty-five deaths were linked to the fire, which was sparked by powerlines.  

2. Tubbs Fire, October 2017

The Tubbs fire was the most destructive of a complex of wildfires known as the October Fire Siege in California's Wine Country. The fire, fanned by unrelenting winds in Sonoma and Napa counties, destroyed 5,643 buildings and resulted in 21 deaths, according to CAL FIRE. The fire started in the Calistoga area on the night of Oct. 8, spreading at a stunning rate and burning through entire neighborhoods, forcing some residents to run from their homes in search of shelter. The official cause remains under investigation.

3. Oakland Hills Fire, October 1991

Also called the Tunnel fire, the firestorm scorched hillsides in northern Oakland and southeastern Berkeley during an October weekend. Responsible for 25 deaths, the fire rekindled from an earlier grass fire and burned only 1,600 acres — not large when compared to other wildfires on the list. But it was located in a densely populated area with houses and other buildings in its path and ended up destroying 2,900 structures. Fanned by powerful wind gusts, the flare-up grew into a wall of fire that left some residents trapped in an inferno.

4. Cedar Fire, October 2003

The catastrophic San Diego County Cedar fire is one of the largest in California history. The 273,000-acre firestorm wiped out 2,820 structures and resulted in 15 deaths. The fire was started by a lost hunter who started a signal fire in Cleveland National Forest near Julian. It grew into a burning monster that stormed through wilderness areas and rural communities.

5. Valley Fire, September 2015

The 76,000-acre fire burned nearly 2,000 structures in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. In just about 24 hours, strong wind gusts pushed the fire to about 50,000 acres after it was started by a faulty electrical connection that caused nearby dry grass to ignite. Four residents were killed.

6. Witch Fire, October 2007

Damaged power lines caused arcing that set off another monstrous fire in San Diego County. The 197,990-acre Witch fire destroyed 1,650 structures. It burned during an onslaught of large wildfires in Southern California that scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in October 2007.

7. Woolsey Fire

The Woolsey Fire started in November 2018 in Ventura County and burned south to the Los Angeles County coast with astounding speed and destroyed 1,643 structures. Mass evacuations included the city of Malibu as the fire burned nearly 97,000 acres. The cause remains under investigation. 

8. Carr Fire, July 2018 

The deadly Carr fire burned more than 115,000 acres in Shasta and Trinity counties as firefighters, mourning two colleagues killed in the firefight, continue to work through sweltering weather. At least 1,604 structures, including about 1,018 residences, were destroyed and seven deaths are linked to the fire. It is the only fire on this list to have burned in July. It is believed that have started due to a mechanical failure involving a vehicle, which sparked nearby brush.

9. North Complex Fire, August 2020 (Active)

A group of fires in Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties that started in August 2020 combined to become the North Complex Fire, resulting in 15 deaths. The fires have burned more than 291,000 acres and 1,500 buildings.

10. LNU Lightning Complex, August 2020 (Active)

Burning Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Yolo and Solano counties, a group of lightning-sparked fires has burned 363,220 acres and 1,491 buildings. Five deaths have been reported since the fires started in August.

11. CZU Lightning Complex, August 2020 (Active)

Another group of lightning-sparked fires continues to burn in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. The CZU Complex has burned 86,509 acres and destroyed 1,490 buildings. One death has been reported.

12. Nuns Fire, October 2017

Part of a deadly complex of fires called the October Fire Siege, the Nuns fire began Oct. 8 and burned through at least 54,000 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties. At least 1,350 structures were destroyed. The official cause remains under investigation.

13. Thomas Fire, December 2017

The fire broke out Dec. 4, 2017 in Ventura County and, fanned by Santa Ana wind gusts, grew into one of the largtest fires on record in California. The fire destroyed 1,063 structures, including homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Two deaths, including a 32-year-old firefighter, were reported. In January, the city of Ventura sued Southern California Edison, alleging powerlines sparked the fire. The official cause remains under investigation.

14. Old Fire, October 2003

A 91,200-acre fire that burned 1,003 structures in San Bernardino County was set by a man in a fit of rage after a dispute with his godfather, according to prosecutors. Rickie Lee Fowler, convicted of murder and arson, was sentenced to death. Six deaths were reported in the fire, which began after a lighted road flare was tossed into the brush.

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