What makes a California wildfire the worst? Deaths and size


The Camp Fire in Northern California has become the worst wildfire the history of a state whose topography and climate have long made it ripe for devastating blazes.

FILE – In this Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 file photo, a home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif. Authorities say the fire is 95 percent contained Thursday, Nov. 22. The deadly blaze that started Nov. 8 leveled Paradise, killing multiple people and destroyed thousands of homes. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

Figuring out just how destructive a wildfire is requires taking into account several statistics, including not only lives lost and homes destroyed but other buildings burned and the amount of forest, timberland and brush laid to waste.

A look at what makes for the worst wildfire and where the most recent blaze falls in those categories:


The Camp Fire, which ravaged the historical mining town of Paradise, is the deadliest in state history, with 84 fatalities as of Friday, according to statistics from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It’s also the deadliest in the U.S. in a century.

With hundreds of people still reported missing, the death count may continue to rise.

The state’s second-deadliest wildfire, Los Angeles’ 1933 Griffith Park blaze, killed 29 people, most of them workers employed through a Depression-era Works Progress Administration program to widen roads and build trails in the sprawling wilderness park on the edge of downtown Los Angeles.

Those workers had no experience putting out fires and no water readily available when flames erupted. They became trapped in a canyon when they tried to stop it with shovels and their feet by stomping on hot spots.

The Tunnel Fire of 1991 killed 25 when it blazed down the densely populated hillsides of Oakland, trapping people in homes and on narrow, winding streets. This third-deadliest wildfire began as a small blaze that firefighters thought they had contained, only to see it roar back to life when smoldering embers ignited other brush as fierce winds erupted.


The Mendocino Complex Fire last year blackened more than 459,000 acres, much of it in the Mendocino National Forest, making it the largest in state history, state statistics say.

That’s nearly triple the size of the Camp Fire that has consumed more than 153,000 acres, or 240 square miles. But only one person died in the 2017 blaze.

Last year’s Thomas Fire, which scorched about 440 square miles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, is the state’s second largest. It killed two people.

The Cedar Fire, which roared across about 427 square miles in 2003, was the largest in state history at the time and is now the third largest. It is also the fifth deadliest. The blaze, which began in the Cleveland National Forest, killed a firefighter and 14 other people. Most were residents of a rural San Diego County canyon who didn’t have time to outrun the wind-driven flames.

Currently the Camp Fire is 16th on this list.


This statistic is based on total structures destroyed, including homes, businesses and other buildings. The Camp Fire is far and away the leader with nearly 19,000 buildings lost, including 13,954 homes.

Last year’s Tubbs Fire, which burned through California wine country, is a distant second at 5,636 structures. It’s also the state’s fourth-deadliest wildfire, having claimed 22 lives.