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California Has Had A Monster Wildfire Every Year For The Past 7 Years

A firefighter tries to control a back burn as the Carr Fire continues to spread toward the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston near Redding, California in this July 31, 2018 file photo. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
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By Jacob Margolis and Brian Frank

If you feel like California's wildfires have been getting bigger and more frequent, you're not alone. More than three-quarters of the state's largest fires on record have occurred in the last 20 years.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, keeps a running list of the top 20 fires on record based on acres burned. We're calling any fire that makes this list a "monster fire."

Of the 20 monster fires currently on the list, 16 have occurred since 1999. Nearly half of these have been in the past seven years alone.

  • 2012: Rush (271,911 acres in California, 43,666 acres in Nevada)
  • 2013: Rim (257,314)
  • 2014: Happy Camp Complex (134,056)
  • 2015: Rough (151,623)
  • 2016: Soberanes (132,127)
  • 2017: Thomas (281,893)
  • 2018: Mendocino Complex (283,800*) and Carr (163,207*)
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* The Mendocino Complex and Carr fires were still burning as of publication, so their totals are likely to change.
Before 2000, such monstrously large fires occurred far less frequently, according to state records.

In fact, another fire that made the list recently, the Soberanes Fire, has already been pushed off -- even at more than 132,000 acres. We included it here because when it burned in 2016, it did make the list.

The Thomas Fire, which tore across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, leaving in its wake one person dead and more than 1,000 structures destroyed, raced up the list last year to become the largest wildfire ever recorded in California. It was also noticeably the only monster fire on Cal Fire's Top 20 list to occur in December. All others happened from July to October.

The Mendocino Complex Fire, still burning in Northern California, has already replaced the Thomas Fire in the top spot.

The Carr Fire, another active monster fire in Northern California, has the grim distinction of being one of the state's most destructive wildfires ever recorded. It currently sits at No. 6 on that list after destroying more than 1,600 structures and leaving six people dead.

To understand the scale of these fires, consider that the smallest among them, 2014's Happy Camp Complex Fire, burned nearly 210 square miles. That's larger than the city of San Jose.

The Mendocino Complex Fire has scorched a little more than 443 square miles, an area larger than the city of San Diego and almost as large as Los Angeles, and it could still grow.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was published on KPCC.

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