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The five largest wildfires in California history

After the Dixie fire grew to be the second-biggest in California history, we revisit the state's biggest wildfires.
After the Dixie fire grew to be the second-biggest in California history, we revisit the state’s biggest wildfires.
(Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Aug. 9. I’m Justin Ray.

Over this last weekend, the Dixie fire became the second-biggest in California history. The blaze has charred 463,000 acres through a large swath of Northern California and destroyed more than 400 homes and commercial buildings. Because of the new ranking, I decided to revisit the biggest fires from the state’s history.

But first, some important information on how fires get their names: My colleague and one of my favorite people at the paper, Erika D. Smith, previously explained the process in a 2020 article. Typically they are named after landmarks. The emergency dispatcher who fields the first call looks up the coordinates for the incident and finds a nearby valley, river or canyon, or sometimes a road, after which to name the conflagration. Sometimes it’s the incident commander who decides.

Over time, authorities have adopted a new naming convention. We’re now seeing incidents in which multiple fires will combine into masses called “complexes.” According to the U.S. Forest Service, a “complex” is made up of two or more fire incidents in the same general area that are assigned to the same commander or unified command. That’s why you will see that term on the list.

Without further ado, here are the biggest fires in the state’s history, including one that was oddly started over a wasp nest:

5. The Creek fire

Location: Fresno and Madera counties

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Description: The Creek fire began September 2020 in the Big Creek drainage between Shaver Lake, Big Creek and Huntington Lake, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement. The fast-moving brush fire had choked off the only road out of a popular recreation area in the Sierra National Forest, trapping hundreds of campers. It burned 379,895 acres before it was finally contained in December 2020.

4. The SCU Lightning Complex fire

Location: Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties

Description: The SCU Lightning Complex, made up of about 20 fires, began early Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020. The complex burned through dry grass and brush in steep, remote areas that hadn’t burned in years. It charred 396,624 acres and was eventually contained in October 2020.

3. Mendocino Complex fire

Location: Colusa, Lake, Mendocino and Glenn counties

Description: The story behind this fire is an odd one: it was started by a man trying to plug the entrance to a wasp nest with a hammer and stake in Mendocino County, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In July 2018, a ranch owner was trying to set up some summer shade for his water tank when he agitated the nest. The man hammered the concrete stake into the ground to plug the hole. He then smelled smoke and realized he had started a fire. It burned more than 459,000 acres before containment in January 2019.

2. The Dixie fire (uncontained)

Location: Butte, Plumas, Lassen and Tehama counties

Description: The fire ignited in July 2021 near a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power station in Feather River Canyon and might have been caused by a Douglas fir tree falling on a power line, PG&E said. It surpassed the Bootleg fire in Oregon to become the largest in the United States this year. So far, it has burned more than 463,000 acres and counting.

1. August Complex fire

Location: Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake and Colusa counties

Description: The August Complex started in August 2020 as more than 30 separate, lightning-caused fires in the Mendocino National Forest. The fire displaced tens of thousands of people. It burned more than 1,032,000 acres and 8,200 structures before being contained in November 2020.

To see the fires currently burning in the state, check out our interactive California wildfires map. Also, follow environment reporter Alex Wigglesworth to hear the latest on fires.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

As the Dixie fire tears through communities, some refuse evacuation orders with guns in hand. Greg Hagwood, a Plumas County supervisor, said that as fire swept through or threatened small mountain towns including Greenville, the evacuations have grown tense — in some cases, residents have met law enforcement with weapons. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Los Angeles police have arrested a suspect in connection with the slaying of a prominent executive at Bank of America who helped people of color seeking careers in the financial services industry. Michelle A. Avan, 48, was found dead Thursday morning by a family member at her home in Reseda, the Los Angeles Police Department said. The exact cause of Avan’s death is unknown but the victim appeared to have suffered trauma to her face, according to police. Detectives arrested Anthony Duane Turner on Thursday afternoon. Bail was set at $2 million. Turner, 52, also worked at Bank of America. His attorney’s contact information wasn’t immediately available. “We are devastated,” Bank of America said in a statement. Los Angeles Times

Bank of America executive Michelle A. Avan.
(Bank of America)

Prosecutors and police this week revealed more details regarding the fatal shootings of a TikTok star and his friend at a Corona movie theater. The suspect, Joseph Jimenez of Corona, and the victims did not appear to know one another, said Corona police, who have described the shootings as “an unprovoked attack.” Jimenez, 20, was watching the movie with three friends. He left halfway through, returning with a bag and informing them that he had a “strap,” according to the warrant. The friends told investigators that they believed Jimenez, who was mumbling and talking to himself, had brought a gun into the theater. Los Angeles Times

Our daily news podcast

If you’re a fan of this newsletter, you’ll probably love our new daily podcast, “The Times,” hosted by columnist Gustavo Arellano, along with reporters from across our newsroom. Every weekday, it takes you beyond the headlines. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow on Spotify.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Subscriber exclusive: The Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune looked into the judge responsible for rulings that have upended California’s gun laws. Fellow judges say he has been an ethical, conscientious worker and a team player. But there’s one way U.S. District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez stands apart from most other judges in the Southern District of California. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

A Stockton woman pleaded guilty to unemployment fraud and identity theft schemes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Hopelyn Ausk, 25, submitted 20 fraudulent claims to California’s Employment Development Department’s unemployment program with victims’ personal information. Twelve of those claims paid more than $160,000 in debit cards that were mailed to her home, the DOJ said. She also is accused of a bank fraud scheme involving stolen bank cards and checks. Her attorney information is unknown. CBS Sacramento

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Endangered California condors are dying in unusually high numbers in Central California, according to conservationists. Already in 2021, 12 condor deaths have been recorded, with seven attributed to lead poisoning. This has been a longtime problem for condors, who eat the carcasses of dead animals, including those that have been shot with lead bullets. Currently, there are 82 wild California condors along the Central Coast, with 321 globally. SF Gate

Wolf baby news. Two of California’s three existing wolf families have produced pups this year, according to a new quarterly report published by the California Department of Fish and Game. “We’re over the moon knowing that for the first time in more than 100 years, California has at least two wolf packs with pups. This is a red-letter moment in wolf recovery for the Golden State,” said Amaroq Weiss, senior West Coast wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These little ones are here because of legal protections that are crucial to their survival and made it possible for wolves to return.” Sierra Sun Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

“I have trouble with L.A.,” O.J. Simpson told The Athletic. The former NFL star says he avoids the city because he might encounter the person responsible for killing his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and friend Ron Goldman. “People may think this is self-serving, but I might be sitting next to whoever did it. I really don’t know who did this.” The Athletic

Steven Sandoval, 21, is a Mexican American who has a large social media following. That’s because he posts images and videos of himself handling doves. He works for Romero’s White Doves, which provides the animals for weddings, funerals and quinceañeras in the greater Los Angeles area. Our Esquina

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: OK, so the second-best Diet Coke you can get is movie theater Diet Coke. But I think it’s because of the thinly cut ice. 80. San Diego: Again, I’m willing to have this hard conversation. Others are afraid, but I’m like, come at me with your Diet Coke beliefs. 75. San Francisco: Perfect weather for eating bacon while you still can, 68. San Jose: 82. Fresno: 103. Sacramento: 91.

AND FINALLY

This week’s birthdays for those who made a mark in Southern California:

Whitney Houston was born Aug. 9, 1963. She sold more than 170 million albums, singles and videos in the pre-digital marketplace. She was found dead in 2012 in a Beverly Hills Hilton hotel room at the age of 48.

Kylie Jenner, who owns a house in L.A., was born Aug. 10, 1997. Her wealth, generated by her makeup line and family connections, was noted by Forbes in 2019.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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