August Complex becomes 1st Calif. fire to hit 1M acres

The record-shattering fire has killed at least 31 people and destroyed thousands of homes


Peter Fimrite
San Francisco Chronicle

MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. — A monster fire the likes of which has never been seen before in California has emerged out of the dystopian pall of wildfire and smoke that has blanketed the state.

The August Complex wildfire, which started out as 37 different fires in Mendocino National Forest, surpassed one million acres Monday, by far the largest conflagration in recorded state history, and it is still burning.

In this Sept. 16, 2020 photo, the August Complex Fire burns near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest, Calif. The August Complex, California's largest-ever wildfire, surpassed 1 million acres on Monday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)
In this Sept. 16, 2020 photo, the August Complex Fire burns near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest, Calif. The August Complex, California's largest-ever wildfire, surpassed 1 million acres on Monday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

The ignominious milestone comes during a year that has already seen more flames than ever in the state. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, at least 31 people have been killed and choking smoke has darkened the skies from Eureka to San Diego.

The fire, which was 54% contained as of Monday morning, is now burning in Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake, and Colusa counties. It has been whipped up over the last month by strong winds, relentless heat and dry vegetation. Strong winds are now threatening to push the fire north into the South Fork Trinity River drainage, prompting Trinity County officials to issue evacuation orders and warnings in several mountainous communities.

How did the August fire get so big and why? The U.S. Forest Service provided the following timeline:

 

  • The wildfire began when thunderstorms pounded the area between Aug. 18 and Aug. 20. The lightning ignited 37 different fires, many of which were contained quickly, but several of them merged to form larger wildfires.
  • By Aug. 20, there were at least 20 fires, ranging in size from a tenth of an acre to 1,400 acres. That’s when the strong winds began. Gusts of up to 25 miles per hour pushed the fires to the lower elevations, according to Cal Fire. The complex of fires, which included the Doe, Glade, Tatham, Hopkins and Hull fires, quickly grew to 65,030 acres. Firefighters focused on protecting the many homes, cabins, buildings, roads, and other infrastructure around the Mendocino National Forest and the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness.
  • On Aug. 31, Diana Jones, a volunteeer firefighter from Texas, was killed when the vehicle she was in crashed inside the lines of the Tatham fire. A second firefighter was treated for burns on the hand and arm after the accident.
  • By Sept. 1, the fires had burned 242,941 acres, but triple-digit heat and northeast winds that day helped the fires spread through tinder dry brush, dead trees and forest debris. Over the next few days, the various fires began to merge.
  • By Sept 4, the Hull, Doe, Tatham, and Glade fires had merged and the complex had grown to 298,269 acres — larger than the 2017 Thomas Fire in Southern California. Firefighters used backburning techniques and dug fire lines to protect homes and contain the fire within a set perimeter. With the help of seven helicopters, 50 fire engines, 19 bulldozers and 26 water tenders, they managed to get the complex 23% contained.
  • The Hopkins Fire by now had grown to more than 8,000 acres and was burning out of control in the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness and Shasta Trinity National Forest.
  • The hot temperatures continued through Labor Day and by Sept. 8, the August Complex had grown to 349,565 acres and was 24% contained. The wind shifted, though, with gusts of up to 40 mph. The intensity of the fire increased that week and evacuations were ordered in Glenn County and portions of Mendocino, Lake, and Trinity counties.
  • The fire has steadily grown as hot, dry conditions have continued and several more wildfires, including the Glass and Zogg fires, have since erupted, sending plumes of smoke across the state. On Sept. 10, it overtook the 2018 Mendocino Complex in acres burned as nearby wildfires consolidated into the complex. Firefighters on the northern and western sides of the complex this week reported low visibility as a result of the smoke. In the south zone, interior fuels continue to smolder throughout the fire area.
  • Crown fires have been reported as flames have raced uphill in the Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers national forests. Flames have also been spotted north of Highway 36 and are expected to spread into the burn area left by the 1987 Plume Fire, where fire officials say heavy fuel could cause rapid fire spread.

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©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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