All Californians have a wildfire story, whether it's your own experience or someone else's. Our stories are woven into the state's history — lessons have been learned, scars left behind both on the land and our lives.
As we release The Big Burn podcast — examining what we can do about this new age of devastating wildfires — we're looking back at the biggest wildfires recorded in California history.
Here's a startling fact: All but two of the biggest fires in recorded history have been in the last 20 years. Wildfires are our past, present and future, and we can all learn a thing or two, from what to expect as they get worse, to how can we become better prepared.
1. August Complex Fire
Acres burned: 1,032,648
Location: Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake and Colusa Counties
The basics: What initially began as 37 separate fires caused by lightning strikes came together to form California’s first gigafire, a term used to describe fires that burn at least a million acres of land.
What makes it memorable: The summer of 2020 was exceptionally hot. That record-breaking heat wave plus extreme drought dried up forests, grasses and shrubs. Then came thunderstorms in Northern California where 11,000 lightning strikes ignited more than 350 fires in Central and Northern California. The massive August Complex fire took just under three months to contain. By the time it was over, 935 structures burned and one person had died. The gigafire ranks at the top of the state’s five largest wildfires in modern history, all in one year.
Acres burned: 963,306
Location: Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama Counties
The basics: On the early morning of July 13, 2021, a power grid went dark near the borders of Butte and Plumas counties. A P&G employee sent to deal with that outage spotted a ring of flames dancing around a Douglas fir leaning on a powerline.
What happened next: Overnight, the fire spread from 600 feet to 1,200 acres and it was just getting started. Over the next two months, surrounding communities faced evacuation and devastation (1,329 structures destroyed).
What makes it memorable: Some of the loss was historically significant like damage to the Tásmam Koyóm, a valley owned by the Maidu tribe of Native Americans who had previously regained control only two years prior. By September, the fire was contained. One firefighter’s death from COVID-19 was attributed to his work on this fire.
3. Mendocino Complex
Acres burned: 459, 123
Location: Colusa, Lake, Mendocino and Glenn Counties
The basics: The Mendocino Complex was named a complex because firefighters had to fight two fires that were dangerously close — the Ranch and River fires.
An unusual origin: Cal Fire later attributed the cause to a "hammer spark." On a 100-degree day, a property owner hammered a metal stake into the ground to pin down a shade cloth that the wind had blown. He was trying to protect himself from a wasp nest, but the action catapulted into a larger, unintended consequence, fueled by extreme heat and drought-like conditions.
What makes it memorable: The fire revealed an even greater injustice, the wealth gap between communities, where low-income communities were less likely to recover, but more disproportionately affected by the fires. It was reported that close to20% of people live under the poverty line in Mendocino County. A total of 246 structures were destroyed, three people were injured, and one death was reported.
4. SCU Lightning Complex
Acres burned: 396,624
Location: Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Joaquin Counties
The basics: Like the August Complex fire, the SCU (Santa Clara Unit) Lightning Complex originated from dry lightning strikes which sparked several fires across the Bay area. The fire was contained later in October, destroying 222 structures and causing six injuries.
Location: Fresno and Madera Counties
The basics: To this day, the cause of the Creek fire is classified as“undetermined.” The massive fire is now the fifth largest in recorded California history.
What makes it memorable: The fire createdtwo fire tornadoes, uprooting pine trees and creating more havoc. The Creek fire forced the communities of Huntington Lake, Shaver Lake and the town of Auberry to evacuate. A total of 856 structures were destroyed, and 26 injuries were reported. Then-U.S. Senator Kamala Harris — running for vice president — and Gov. Gavin Newsom visited communities affected, emphasizing that climate change is a bipartisan issue. The fire was finally contained in December.
6. LNU Lightning Complex
Acres burned: 363,220
Location: Napa, Solano, Sonoma, Yolo, Lake and Colusa Counties
The basics: This lightning-sparked fire caught Vacaville residents by surprise, forcing them to flee their homes in the middle of the night.
What makes it memorable: Police investigators later determined that aman arrested on suspicion of murder and arson caused the Markley fire, which merged into the others. Six people died and 1,491 structures were destroyed.
7. North Complex
Acres burned: 318,935
Location: Butte, Plumas and Yuba Counties
The basics: Like the other complex fires, this fire was caused by a barrage of dry lightning strikes.
What makes it memorable: The North Complex fire is the fifth deadliest wildfire, killing16 people,most of them from Berry Creek, a small town ravaged by the fires. It alsoraised concern among scientistswho noticed a different pattern in the movement of the fire, which left a huge scar that could take decades to repair. A total of 2,352 structures were destroyed.
Acres burned: 281,893
Location: Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties
The basics: Power lines owned by Southern California Edisontook the blame again for this devastating wildfire.
What happened: Dry winds pushed two parallel power lines into each other, creating an electrical arc that ignited nearby dry brush and caused two separate fires, although SCE only claimed responsibility for one of the fires. In the end, the fire killed two people, including a firefighter, destroyed more than 1,000 structures and even restricted water flow to residents and firefighters.
What makes it memorable: The fire’s aftermath was even more devastating. A month later, rain fell on the burn scar and released debris that killed 21 people and damaged homes in the community of Montecito.
Acres burned: 273,246
Location: San Diego County
The basics: On Oct. 25, 2003, a lost hunter in a remote area of the Cleveland National Forest lit a signal fire to call for help, but the pesky Santa Ana winds turned an SOS signal into rampaging fire that killed 15 people and damaged 2,820 structures.
What makes it memorable: Firefighters were underprepared and underestimated the inferno, lacking evacuation plans and clear communication. As San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob told the San Diego Tribune, “The Cedar fire was the first time in the history of our county that a fire that started in the backcountry actually went into the cities,” calling the blaze a regional issue. Since 2003, technology advancements allow firefighters to better track wildfires, from cameras that scan for smoke to weather stations that will help fire forces understand wind patterns.
Acres burned: 271,911 CA / 43,666 NV
Location: Lassen County
The basics: The Rush fire was a result of a lightning strike that struck the border between California and Nevada.
What makes it memorable: For the central and western part of the U.S., 2012 was one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. Dryness and high, gusty winds played a role in fueling the flames. The fire was dangerously close to a major gas line and power linesthat served the Reno area. While the fire was contained within the month, the aftermath severely “impacted the natural habitats offederally-protectedwild horses, burros, and grouse of the area.” No structures were destroyed and no deaths were reported.
Acres burned: 257,314
Location: Tuolumne County
The basics: The Rim fire posed a threat to California’s great Sequoia’s in Yosemite National Park, some more than 2,000 years old. A crucial water supply in the Bay Areawas threatened and 112 structures were destroyed, including campgrounds and cabins.
What makes it memorable: A bow hunter was accused of ignoring warning signs and letting an illegal fire escape, resulting in the massive fire. The blaze closed many of Yosemite’s campgrounds, canceling holiday plans for many visitors who intended to spend Labor Day weekend in the forests.
Acres burned: 240,207
Location: Santa Barbara County
The basics: The Zaca fire threatened the Los Padres National Forest, injured 40 people and destroyed one building. Two men were deemed responsible for causing the fire from grinding metal to repair a water pipeline on a Bell Canyon ranch, resulting in a spark that ignited the blaze. Neither man was charged.
Acres burned: 229,651
Location: Shasta and Trinity counties
The basics: A flat tire on a trailer that scraped the road and caused sparks ignited this fire. The Carr fire then sparked a fire tornado in Whiskey, forcing neighborhoods in Shasta and Trinity County to evacuate.
What makes it memorable: The fire ultimately jumped the Sacramento River into the city of Redding, forcing more residents to flee. Eightdeaths were reportedand 1,614 structures were destroyed.
Acres burned: 223,124
The basics: A lightning strike ignited this fire inDel Loma near Monument Peak. While the fire was big, the area was remote. Still, 50 structures were destroyed.
Acres burned: 221,835
Location: Alpine, Amador and El Dorado County
The basics: The Caldor fire burned through much of the El Dorado National Forest, affecting the community of Grizzly Flats. A year later, several families who were uninsured and lost their homes are struggling to find permanent housing, prompting the county to step in to build them tiny homes.
What makes it memorable: A father and son were indicted for reckless arson. One death was reported and more than 1,000 structures were destroyed. Aninvestigation by the California Newsroom found that authorities had failed to act on plans that could have limited the damage to Grizzly Flats.
Acres burned: 220,000
Location: Ventura County
The basics: Before the Cedar fire struck in 2003, the Matilija fire held the title as the largest fire in recorded state history. The fire burned 220,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest, appearing in a drought-stricken area that was a blind spot for lookout points. The range of the fire stretched from the town of Fillmore to the outskirts of Santa Barbara.
What makes it memorable: At the time, State Route 33, then known as State Highway 399, was incomplete and delayed some efforts to put out the fire quicker. No lives were lost and no buildings were destroyed during the 11-day fire. The cause remains unknown
17. River Complex
Acres Burned: 199,343
Location: Siskiyou and Trinity Counties
The basics: The River Complex fire consisted of three different fires in the Klamath National Forest and Shasta-Trinity National Forest, caused by lightning strikes. The fire was contained in October, destroying 122 structures.
Acres burned: 197,990
Location: San Diego County
The basics: A combo of power lines and Santa Ana winds caused a small fire in the Witch Creek near Santa Ysabel that later spread north. A total of 1,650 structures were destroyed, 40 injuries occurred and two deaths were reported.
What makes it memorable: While many lost their homes, one couple said their home was saved by succulents, a fire retardant plant.
19. Klamath Theater Complex
Acres burned: 192,038
Location: Siskiyou County
The basics: The Klamath Theater Complex was another multiple lightning strike fire that ignited a series of fires in Siskiyou County, within the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forest. Two deaths were reported; no structures were destroyed.
20. Marble Cone
Acres burned: 177,866
Location: Monterey County
The basics: The Marble Cone fire destroyed no structures and claimed no lives. The fire was caused by lightning strikes.
What makes it memorable: Wildlife in the Los Padres National Forest suffered the most. Firefighters strategically let the blaze disrupt the Ventana wilderness to save the Carmel River watershed instead. Many squirrels, rabbits and other rodents were killed.