August Complex of fires in Northern California has burned 846,000 acres

It is the largest fire in California’s history — by far

Map of the August Complex of fires
Map of the August Complex of fires. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 1:12 p.m. PDT Sept. 22, 2020.

Four wildfires burning in California are so extraordinarily large that it takes two or more of the largest and highest qualified Incident Management Teams (IMT) to organize and supervise the suppression of each these monster fires.

One of those, the 846,898-acre (that is not a typo) August Complex in Northern California has three Type 1 teams– CAL FIRE 5, Great Basin 2, and Alaska 1. This monster of a fire is 63 miles long (north to south) and at its widest point is 32 miles, east to west. The blaze is divided into three zones, West, North, and South Zones. The fire is the result of 37 fires that started on August 17, burning together on the Mendocino National Forest 32 miles southwest of Redding.

One firefighter, Diane Jones from a fire department in Texas, was killed in a vehicle accident August 31. Twenty-one residences have been destroyed.

One individual with COVID-19 symptoms and two other people who had contact with the individual are in isolation until they can be cleared by testing.

Resources assigned to the fire include 70 hand crews, 388 fire engines, and 35 helicopters for a total of 4,290 personnel — a figure that includes 125 California National Guard personnel.

Some lists of the largest fires in the recorded history of California circulating this year have listed complexes, multiple individual fires managed under one organization, high on the list. But a group of fires arbitrarily lumped under one IMT should not, for historical purposes, be ranked.

However, the August Complex is comprised of multiple fires that burned together and became one, so in my mind it legitimately belongs on the list as the largest in the recorded history of the state. The next three on the list at Wikipedia are all multiple-fire complexes; they should at least have asterisks explaining they are not single fires. But even if the multiple-fire complexes are included, the August Complex is still about 388,000 acres larger than number two on the list, the 2018 Mendocino Complex which consisted of two fires, River and Ranch.

bulldozer August Complex fire
Bulldozer on the 26 Road, north flank of the August Complex, Sept. 21, 2020. USFS photo by Mike McMillan.
firefighter August Complex fire
Lassen Hotshot, conducting a firing operation on the August Complex of fires, Sept. 21, 2020. USFS photo by Mike McMillan.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

14 thoughts on “August Complex of fires in Northern California has burned 846,000 acres”

    1. I’m sorry they need to keep fighting these fires. My son lives in Hyampom and he has spent plenty of money to put in water areas for the fighting of these fires. He has a metal roof. And I would like to be able to hug him again. He intends to stay and fight for his home. He’s disabled and I’m scared for him. If they let these fires just burn more people will die.

  1. Now nearly the entire Mendocino NF, the inholdings within the administrative map boundary, and much of the surrounding area has burned in the past three years. What is the expected fire interval for the various fuel types that burned? How many years will this unrequested fuels reduction event be effective in slowing the growth of future fires?

    One thing is certain. Wildfire has been prescribed across that landscape. There is no longer a case to be made that fire suppression successfully prevented fire for a century or decades.

    How will they build upon the mosaic of fuels that remain and that will soon arrive, both on the Mendocino and in other public domains with recent megaburns?

    Once the smoke clears, I hope Wildfire Today follows the story of the post burn assessments.

  2. Don,

    I guess I’m not quite sure what you’re asking here. Are you stating as a fact that prescribed burns were performed on much of this forest and then wondering why the controlled burns failed to thwart or prevent this huge conflagration?

    If so, it is my understanding that a well-managed controlled burn will not necessarily prevent all future fires but, rather, future fires following a controlled burn usually won’t burn as hot and ideally will not result in nearly such a high rate of tree mortality.

    I am more familiar with what’s happened in Arizona. There was a controlled burn that was performed on about 200 acres in the White Mountains prior to the outbreak of the devastating Wallow Fire. The Wallow fire went through that area and completely torched everything with a 100% rate of tree mortality EXCEPT on that 200 patch that was done. Although the fire went through that patch, the trees on that 200 acre patch remained green whereas everything surrounding it was killed.

    Two years ago there was a controlled burn on Mount Bigelow north of Tucson and then this year the huge Bighorn Fire also passed that area and left it largely unscathed.

    If you look at one of the pictures near the top of this page, you can see what looks like two large Doug firs with no lower branches. The fire burning there will probably not kill those trees. Those trees might be benefitting from a controlled burn that was done there although I’m theorizing a bit here because I’m not sure about that but it kinda appears that way.

    Fred M. Cain

    1. Fred. I was stating that wildfire has been prescribed by nature, the fire gods, or whatever we want to call the forces beyond our control. Fuels reduction has been accomplished, and in some areas it will be for the better.

      This does present an opportunity to start anew in much of this country.
      Maintenance burning should be an easier task unless the annual grasses that are a prime driver in the escape of many of these fires invades even more country.

      1. Don,

        Oh, I see. Those are good points, I guess.

        I have also seen where a high-intensity fire can go through, burn very hot and yet a few isolated trees survive to offer themselves as a seed source.

        Such a high-intensity fire can completely expose mineral soil leaving an excellent bed for seedlings to sprout. Under the right kind of weather conditions, millions of tiny pine seedlings can sprout forming a mass that later grows up into what some people call a “doghair thicket”. This can, in turn, set the stage for an even worse fire later on.

        This is exactly what happened after the 2003 Aspen Fire on Mount Lemmon north of Tucson. After that fire, which burned very hot following about 100 years of fire exclusion, forest and fire officials “turned over a new leaf” so to speak and resolved to thin trees and conduct controlled burns.

        But as the wife of a retired forest ranger told me, all too soon it was back to “business as usual”. Guess what? Dog hair thickets of ponderosa pine grew back up setting the stage for the devastating Bighorn Fire this past June.

        Most of the young saplings that were regenerating were destroyed and now Nature’s task of growing a new forest will have to start all over again from scratch. I probably won’t live to see that anymore.

        Fred M. Cain

  3. Interesting discussion.
    Is it possible that the paradigm has changed? From my experience with wildfire going back to the 70’s, I think it has.
    These mega fire events are happening much more frequently and it seems to only be getting worse.
    One of the negative side effects of these large, incredibly hot megafires is the lasting effect on the landscape and environment in general.
    I think most of us agree that the right kind of fire is a good thing for the environment..aboriginal people’s across the world used fire for millennia to improve and help with living off the land.

    Big hot fires that kill off the soil microbes, consume all or most of the organics and don’t leave a mosaic footprint won’t come back in our lifetime, or many lifetimes,as something we value and cherish in our natural landscapes.
    Moonscapes is probably a better description for the aftermath of some of these fires.
    Invasive weeds and non native grasses love these scenes of destruction…they will be out in force after 2020.
    Fred is right on the money with his observations on fire in previously treated stands. I have observed many big fires sit down on their heels when they hit a treated stand, whether that be USFS land in Oregon or private timberlands in north carolina.

    Yes, the treated stands probably will be consumed in a mega fire event, but the intensity is lower and usually a mosaic pattern is left behind. I guess this speaks to Bill’s other piece on money’s for prescribed fire.
    Pretty much an endless list of subject matter it would seem.

    1. Vean,

      I could say something else about grasses and pine needles here. I read a report on ponderosa pines [] where prior to European settlers, most western pine forests were rather open (less that 50 trees per acre) and grass grew among the pines. The grasses facilitated periodic, low-intensity ground fires that would pass through the pines and do little or no damage to the trees EXCEPT perhaps hardwood species that would compete with the pines. This in turn resulted in very healthy stands of pine.

      However, a combination of livestock grazing which eliminated much of the grass and fire exclusion that resulted in denser stands and deep shade no longer allowed grass to grow. In time there was one to three feet of dead, dry, desiccated litter on the forest floor. This, in turn, set the stage for disaster. So, things got out of balance and now we are paying a price for this.

      The other piece of the puzzle, is WHY did the Master Creator, put turpentine in pine trees? Why indeed? It’s almost like gasoline !

      Here’s a really neat theory: Enough of that volatile residual residue lingers in dead pine needles and twigs to allow them to burn when they are damp. The result is a relatively “cool” fire that can go through the forest and kill other species of young trees that would compete with the pines. Any pine sapling above about a 2” or 3” DBH would be very likely to survive. This is truly amazing. So, it appears that Mother Nature knew very well what she was doing by putting turpentine in pine trees.

      Fred M. Cain

      1. 19th Century Ponderosa Pine forests varied according to topography and elevation, but in general they were subject to more frequent fire. However, describing them in terms of density does not do them justice. Fifty trees per acre of towering old growth trees creates more shading than anybody considers. The structure of an individual old growth tree is markedly different than the structure of second growth that is less than one hundred years old. These forests were not uniformly open and are often misunderstood as “savannahs.”

        Many of the PIPO forests of the West have also been some of the most managed forest landscapes of the 20th and 21st centuries, because they are in rolling, accessible terrain. They were not uniformly subjected to a century of fuel buildups. On the contrary, they were intensively managed, the old growth was systematically cut according to the dominant silviculture of the day, the old growth limbs piled and burned, and fire was allowed to spread beyond those piles. The “doghair thickets” were largely thinned either precommercially or through pulpwood sales.

        Fuel Conditions on Southwest Pine Forests were exaggerated as far back as the early 90s to justify continued, unsustainable harvest rates in second growth timber as the old growth was confined to less accessible canyons and experimental set-asides. But even in these managed landscapes where RX fire was routine fires burned hot during drought years.

        Fire does not just reduce ground fuels, it prunes aerial fuels. In 1996 we were on a two acre RX burn on the Long Valley Experimental Forest on the Mogollon Plateau. Fuel moisture was very low. On that experimental fire plot that was on a two year interval for two decades, the fire that day climbed the bole of an old growth PIPO and charred limbs 50 feet above the forest floor. In extreme conditions, anything and everything can burn, and all RX fire can do is hopefully slow it down. Fire can get into the crowns without a ladder of fuels.

        This year the Bobcat Fire in SoCal is reburning where the Station fire burned very hot just 10 years ago. On the SQF complex on the Sequoia, very active fire behavior was observed in a three year wildfire burn scar. When live moisture is described as “record low” and dead fuel moistures are consistently described as “critically dry,” even areas where burning has been introduced or is routine can be subject to catastrophic fast moving wildfires under the right conditions.

        Three wind driven wildfires in Washington State, the Pearl Hill, Cold Springs, and Delta fire burned more than 500,000 acres in just a few days earlier this month. They were in the grasslands and shrub/steppe. They were still deadly and destructive. The town of Malden, Washington burned down during a wind driven fire where the primary fuel was tall wheat.

        I support more RX burning, and do not dispute its benefits. But at the same time those risks and benefits should not be underestimated or overstated.

  4. I’m sorry they need to keep fighting these fires. My son lives in Hyampom and he has spent plenty of money to put in water areas for the fighting of these fires. He has a metal roof. And I would like to be able to hug him again. He intends to stay and fight for his home. He’s disabled and I’m scared for him. If they let these fires just burn more people will die.

    1. Linda,

      Your son has taken some very wise and far-sighted precautions. We surely respect him for that!

      However, it is unfortunate that there are so many people who have built houses in the forest with little or no thought given to fire. It has been called the great “expansion of the urban/wildland interface”.

      Our great National Forests are riddled full of private inholdings whereby the Forest Service has very little or no control over what goes on there on private land. I strongly advocate the buying out these inholdings. Although there is some progress being made there they will almost certainly never be able to get rid of them all.

      I see ads in the newspaper all the time where someone is selling a mansion in the forest for millions of dollars. YIKES! It’s not as IF these places might burn but more like a matter of when.

      One area that I am very concerned about is the region around Grass Valley and Nevada City in California. I fear that that could very well be on the list of future blow ups. I hope not but it is indeed a major concern. Another possible endangered area is the Big Bear area in Southern California. There are actually many such areas all over the country but especially in the West.

      Fred M. Cain

  5. Don,
    Just wonder what your thoughts are on the old fire scarred pine that we used to see in oregon and washington.
    Plenty of these were 5′ across at the base with much of the bowl burned out….but still alive incredibly…any idea how old they were? They obviously survived many fires over a long period. It would be interesting to try and find out if they are being taken out by these recent fire seasons we are experiencing
    My gut says a lot of them are being burned to the ground…

    1. Vean, I really do not know that country well. However, the fires in Washington were more in the grass and brush on the east side. This map shows that well.

      As for Oregon, this slide show of the Santiem Canyon fire should provide some hope that the fire moved so fast that at times it stayed a surface fire? Also interesting to see how thoroughly burnt some clearcuts are.

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