Deadly Wildfires of California

By Penny Chavers

Firefighter lights backfires during the Carr fire in Redding, CA on July 27, 2018.-One person died and at least two others injured as wind-whipped flames tore through the region. Source: (Photo credit JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

California wildfires have been going on for years. What is the phenomenon that seems to make California, in particular, such a target? Whatever the reason, many thousands upon thousands have lost lives and property over the years to these wildfires. Not only do these fires cost lives and property but also billions of dollars in revenue to business owners and the communities in which they live. Their livelihood is simply gone as they watch their businesses, as well as their homes, go up in smoke.

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How far back do they go?

The year 1889 was a year of disasters with fire, flood, and earthquake shocks for California.

The Great Fire of 1889 (or the Santiago Canyon Fire) is considered the largest single wildfire in recorded history until 2018 that burned between 300,000 to 495,000 acres of land. Leading up to the fire were severe drought conditions that lasted longer than usual with less than 0.4 inches of rain over the previous 5 ½ months. During that month and specifically, 10 days beforehand, descending winds (high-density air from a higher elevation down a slope) made things much dryer than usual.

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Deadliest Fires

The Griffith Park Fire of 1933, a brush fire, was one of the deadliest firefighter disasters in the history of the U.S. With literally thousands of workers hired by Reconstruction Finance Corporation (who were paid 40 cents an hour) to clear out dry brush to create trails and roads in Griffith Park, an unexpected event took place. At 2:00 pm in the hot dry summer afternoon, in the Mineral Wells Canyon, a small fire started in a pile of debris. The workers, with no piped water in the area, many of whom were either volunteering or ordered to fight the fire, were not able to contain it. The combination of foremen with no knowledge of firefighting and the men trying to beat out the fire with their shovels caused backfires which sent hundreds of workers into a steep canyon. When the firemen arrived at 2:26 pm, it was nearly impossible for them to fight the fire due to the thousands of untrained men in the way. Suddenly around 3:00 pm, the wind shifted causing the fire to rush up the Canyon on the workers literally bringing death to dozens of lives and injury to over 100. It was the deadliest fire in California for 85 years until November 2018.

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What causes these deadly wildfires?

The climate in California is mostly dry and windy so during hot weather, these conditions can become more prominent which can lead to wildfires. In the northern part of the state, the strong, dry winds known as Diablo winds occur and in the southern part of the state, these same winds are known as Santa Ana winds. There are two factors that are making them more and more dangerous. One is the human factor because so many people are building more in the rural areas where these burns take place and the other is the debatable factor of climate change.

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What are the greatest numbers in terms of loss of life and property?

Taxpayers in the United States are paying around $3 billion annually to fight these wildfires and the bigger the fires, the greater the loss of property leading to billions of dollars in property loss.

The Camp Fire of 2018, which is the most recent wildfire in California, taking place in November of 2018, has now become the worst and deadliest of all. With 86 lives lost, 18,804 buildings destroyed, and 153,336 acres burned, it started in a place called Paradise, California. The cause is still under investigation but there is a lot of finger pointing at specific entities as possible contributors to the cause. Many people lost their homes and property as well as animals.

Are they getting more frequent?

The Camp Fire of 2018 is actually the second wildfire in 2018. Previously, the Carr fire took place in July of 2018 burning up 229,651 acres of land and causing damage to 1,604 buildings. They are becoming more and more frequent with each passing year as well as more deadly.

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.