August Fire grows to over one million acres

Gigafire in Northern California

Map of the August Complex of fires
Map of the August Complex of fires in Northern California, October 6, 2020.

On August 16 a weather pattern that does not occur often began working its way slowly through northern California. During the next three days about 2,500 lightning strikes were recorded that started over 600 fires, creating what became the Siege of ’20. The lightning was a result of moist unstable air from Tropical Storm Fausto colliding with a high pressure ridge during a heat wave. Many of the thunderstorm cells produced little or no rain that reached the ground. The lightning ignited dry fuels causing fires that spread rapidly, quickly overwhelming the suppression capability of local, state, and federal fire organizations. Some fires were not staffed at all for days, and for weeks most incidents struggled, with fewer resources than they needed.

The August Complex of fires is the result of 37 blazes that started on August 17 and eventually burned together on the Mendocino National Forest. It has now blackened 1,004,373 acres becoming a gigafire, the largest fire in the recorded history of California, by far. The scope of the fire is almost difficult to comprehend — approximately 72 miles by 32 miles. It is larger than Rhode Island which is 988,832 acres.

Resources assigned include 65 hand crews, 353 fire engines, and 31 helicopters for a total of 4,075 personnel. About 100 residences and 104 other structures have been destroyed . The estimated costs to date are $166 million.

The fire is divided into two zones with individual areas managed by four Type 1 Incident Management Teams overseen by an Area Command Team.

Largest fires, California, October 6, 2020
Largest fires in the recorded history of California as of October 6, 2020. The number of structures includes all types of structures, from small sheds to large commercial buildings.
August Complex fire
A firefighter bucks a log near Van Duzen Road on the Northwest Zone of the August Complex. Credit: Jacob Welsh

Our take on the largest fires list

The next three fires on the “Top 20 Largest California Wildfires” are all complexes, comprised of multiple separate fires that were arbitrarily clumped together on paper and called a complex. If they are listed at all on a Top 20 list, they should at least have an asterisk indicating each complex is actually multiple fires. If they burn together they should be treated as one fire. Geographically separate fires should be listed independently.

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.

Over 15,000 personnel are battling California fires

Cooler weather has slowed some fires, but the August Complex grew by over 16,000 acres Tuesday

Updated August 26, 2020 | 11:38 a.m. PDT

California Fires August 26, 2020
California Fires August 26, 2020.

The  growth of the big complexes of fires in California, LNU, CZU, and SCU, has slowed in recent days, but the LNU and SCU Lightning Complexes still gained 4,509 and 5,717 acres respectively in the last 24 hours. The August Complex southwest of Red Bluff increased by 16,097 acres.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the lightning fires in California, including the most recent, click HERE.)

The blazes have charred more than 1.32 million acres, killed seven people, and destroyed nearly 2,000 structures. The fires are being fought by 280 hand crews, 2,400 fire engines, 300 dozers, and 370 water tenders for a total of 15,000 personnel.

In addition to the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group working on a request for firefighting assistance from Australia and Canada, California activated the National Guard for help containing the blazes. On August 23 CAL FIRE issued equipment to 270 soldiers as they were beginning basic fire training at Camp Roberts. Another group of 300 soldiers will arrive next week for training. CAL FIRE will embed with each 20-person crew a Captain and two firefighters for supervision.

Below are updates on some of the largest incidents in California, with data from CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service.

LNU Lightning Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: North Bay
  • Counties: Napa, Lake, Yolo, Solano, Sonoma
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE Sonoma-Lake-Napa
  • Acres: 357,046. The largest fire in the complex is the Hennessey Fire, 299,763 . The Walbridge Fire west of Healdsburg is 54,923, and the Meyers Fire on the coast north of Jenner is 2,360.
  • Structures destroyed: 978
  • Personnel assigned: 2,207
  • Evacuation information:  CAL FIRE LNU Twitter page
  • Notes: Fires that merged to become the Hennessey Fire include Gamble, Green, Spanish, 5-10, Morgan, and Markley Fires.

SCU Lightning Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: South Bay
  • Counties: Santa Clara, Alameda, Stanislaus, Contra Costa, San Joaquin
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE Santa Clara
  • Acres: 365,772
  • Structures destroyed: 31
  • Personnel assigned: 1,655
  • Evacuation information:  CAL FIRE SCU Twitter page
  • Notes: Fire activity has lessened due to favorable weather conditions and increased humidity across the complex. Deep seated heat still remains in the bottom of the steep, inaccessible drainages. During the evening fire crews held existing control line around the fire perimeter continuing to both reinforce and add new containment lines. When weather and conditions are favorable there will be a controlled burn operation inside the control line. This controlled burn will widen the buffer and consume fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line.

CZU August Lightning

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: South Bay
  • Counties: San Mateo, Santa Cruz
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE San Mateo-Santa Cruz
  • Acres: 79,640
  • Structures destroyed: 443
  • Personnel assigned: 1,697
  • Evacuation information: CAL FIRE CZU Twitter page
  • Notes: It is burning in Southern San Mateo County and Northern Santa Cruz County actively above the marine layer in the heavy timber and thick undergrowth.  Approximately 77,000 people have been evacuated.

River and Carmel Fires

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: Five miles south of Salinas, near Pine Canyon Rd. and River Rd.
  • Counties: Monterey
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE San Benito-Monterey
  • Acres: 48,424
  • Structures destroyed: 30
  • Personnel assigned: 1,183
  • Evacuation information: CAL FIRE San Benito-Monterey Twitter page, and see maps produced by Monterey County here.
  • Notes: Firefighters patrolling the fire Tuesday confirmed that the fire remained within containment lines. The onshore winds from the northwest allowed the fire to travel very slowly to the south with in containment lines.The Carmel Fire 2 miles southwest of the River Fire has burned 6,901 acres and destroyed 37 structures.

Dolan Fire

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: on the coast 10 miles south of Big Sur
  • Counties: Monterey
  • Administrative Unit: U.S. Forest Service, Los Padres NF
  • Acres: 21,844
  • Structures destroyed: 0
  • Personnel assigned: 880
  • Evacuation information:
  • Notes: Fire behavior was moderate throughout Tuesday night. Crews performed structure defense in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and continued to protect private property and clear roadways around Partington and along Hwy. 1. Crews continued to secure direct and indirect lines to keep the fire out of Hermitage, Lucia and Morning Glory. Progress is slow due to rough terrain and lack of available crews. On Wednesday, crews will continue to focus on the northern and southern edges of the fire by constructing and enhancing control lines, with the priority being lines along McWay ridge and above Lucia northeast to Twin Peaks.

August Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: 18 miles southwest of Red Bluff
  • Counties: Tehama, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Trinity
  • Administrative Unit: Mendocino National Forest and CAL FIRE
  • Acres: 197,148
  • Structures destroyed: 10
  • Personnel assigned: 476
  • Evacuation information:
  • Notes: As of Tuesday evening: firefighters are opening preexisting fire breaks as control lines on the south portion of the Doe fire (160,436 acres 31% contained). Structure protection is continuing when it is safe to do so. Line construction is continuing on the Glade Fire (18,307 acres 0% contained). Firefighters are working in coordination with Crane Mills Timber and using dozers to tie in the north portion of the Tatham fire (8,958 acres 11% contained). .

Predicted dry lightning could worsen the fire situation in California and other western states

Red Flag Warning in effect for Northern California Sunday and Monday

August 24, 2020 | 7:45 a.m. PDT

Map fires California Bay Area
Map of fires in the California Bay Area, August 23, 2020.

As if firefighters and residents evacuating or battling lightning-caused wildfires in California didn’t already have enough to worry about, another round of dry lightning is in the forecast for Sunday and Monday.

Thunderstorms with little or no rain is what ignited over 500 fires earlier last week. Now scattered or isolated dry thunderstorms could hit northern California and portions of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado through Monday.

Nick Nauslar, a Fire Meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, wrote about the forecast in a tweet at 11:30 p.m. Saturday:

Hundreds of new fires are likely if this event pans out. And thunderstorm outflow winds will impact some ongoing fires which would lead to an increase of fire spread/behavior. I hope I'm wrong and this forecast busts. But for now, data points to another big event.

So it’s not just the potential for new fires that that is cause for concern — the strong outflow winds associated with the thunderstorms could greatly increase the rate of spread of the existing fires. It can also put firefighters in even greater danger as the winds can shift 180 degrees very quickly changing the direction a fire is moving, possibly overrunning personnel.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the lightning fires in California, including the most recent, click HERE.)

Check out this video showing the effect the passage of a thunderstorm had on the just-ignited Hennessey Fire August 17 in Napa Valley. That fire has now burned 287,811 acres. The effect of outflow winds is temporary, but a blaze that is suddenly much larger can outstrip the ability of firefighters to quickly suppress it.

Red Flag Warnings are in effect for the northern half of California through Monday evening. The highest threat of dry lightning is Sunday afternoon through Monday morning.

With existing shortages of personnel, equipment, engines, and firefighting aircraft, more fires would put further strain on the systems that are already being managed at the highest planning level nationally, Preparedness Level 5. In PL 5 over 80% of the nation’s incident management teams and wildland firefighting personnel are committed to incidents. Resource orders are being prioritized to fires across California and the west.

Aircraft that can map a fire using infrared imagery have not yet flown all of the large incidents and some maps and acreages are estimates. One of the two mapping aircraft owned by the U.S. Forest Service, N144Z which is the most capable, has not successfully mapped a fire since November 16, 2018 because an avionics issue has not been repaired. The Forest Service has hired privately owned mapping aircraft in an attempt to fill the void.

Below are updates on the largest incidents in California.

LNU Lightning Complex

  • Updated August 24, 2020 at 7:38 p.m. PDT
  • Location: North Bay
  • Counties: Napa, Lake, Yolo, Solano, Sonoma
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE Sonoma-Lake-Napa
  • Acres: 350,030. The largest fire in the complex is the Hennessey Fire, 293,602. The Walbridge Fire west of Healdsburg is 54,068, and the Meyers Fire on the coast north of Jenner is 2,360.
  • Structures destroyed: 871
  • Personnel assigned: 1,857
  • Evacuation information:  CAL FIRE LNU Twitter page
  • Notes: Fires that merged to become the Hennessey Fire include Gamble, Green, Spanish, 5-10, Morgan, and Markley Fires.
LNU Lightning Complex map
Map of the LNU Lightning Complex of fires at 9:21 p.m. PDT August 22, 2020.

SCU Lightning Complex

  • Updated August 24, 2020 at 7:44 a.m. PDT
  • Location: South Bay
  • Counties: Santa Clara, Alameda, Stanislaus, Contra Costa, San Joaquin
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE Santa Clara
  • Acres: 347,196
  • Structures destroyed: 12
  • Personnel assigned: 1,336
  • Evacuation information:  CAL FIRE SCU Twitter page
  • Notes: The complex is comprised of approximately 20 separate fires broken into three zones; the Canyon Zone, the Calaveras Zone, and the Deer Zone.

CZU August Lightning

  • Updated August 24, 2020 at 7:44 a.m. PDT
  • Location: South Bay
  • Counties: San Mateo, Santa Cruz
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE San Mateo-Santa Cruz
  • Acres: 74,000
  • Structures destroyed: 163
  • Personnel assigned: 1,511
  • Evacuation information: CAL FIRE CZU Twitter page
  • Notes: The fires continue to actively burn above the marine layer in the heavy timber and thick undergrowth. Damage Inspection Teams have begun to survey areas where fire activity has diminished and it is safe to do so. The number of destroyed structures reflected may change as teams continue to make progress. Firefighting resources are limited due to the number of fires burning throughout California. Limited visibility due to smoke is hampering aircraft operations. Approximately 77,000 people have been evacuated.
Map SCU Lightning Complex and CZU August Lightning Complex of fires
Map of the SCU Lightning Complex and CZU August Lightning Complex of fires at 7:54 a.m. August 23, 2020.

River and Carmel Fires

  • Updated August 24, 2020 at 7:44 a.m. PDT
  • Location: Five miles south of Salinas, near Pine Canyon Rd. and River Rd.
  • Counties: Monterey
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE San Benito-Monterey
  • Acres: 48,424
  • Structures destroyed: 21
  • Personnel assigned: 1,274
  • Evacuation information: CAL FIRE San Benito-Monterey Twitter page, and see maps produced by Monterey County here.
  • Notes: The Carmel Fire 2 miles southwest of the River Fire has burned 6,695 acres and destroyed 37 structures.

Dolan Fire

  • Updated August 23, 2020 at 9:31 a.m. PDT
  • Location: on the coast 10 miles south of Big Sur
  • Counties: Monterey
  • Administrative Unit: U.S. Forest Service, Los Padres NF
  • Acres: 19,287
  • Structures destroyed: 0
  • Personnel assigned: 488
  • Evacuation information:
  • Notes: On private land and the Los Padres National Forest, threatening the communities of Hermitage, Partington Ridge, and Lucia. Multiple businesses, communications sites, parks and recreational sites are also threatened. On Saturday crews continued to focus on point protection operations around Hermitage and Lucia to the South, and Partington Ridge and Anderson Peak communications infrastructure to the North. As the threat diminishes these priorities will shift. After more resources arrive the plan will expand to include additional perimeter control operations. The fire was mapped for the first time Saturday night with a fixed wing aircraft. This accurate method is the reason for the large increase in the known acreage.
River Carmel Dolan Fires map August 22 California
Map showing the locations of the River, Carmel, and Dolan Fires August 22, 2020.

August Complex

  • Updated August 24, 2020 at 7:44 a.m. PDT
  • Location: 18 miles southwest of Red Bluff
  • Counties: Tehama, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Trinity
  • Administrative Unit: Mendocino National Forest and CAL FIRE
  • Acres: 177,750
  • Structures destroyed: 10
  • Personnel assigned: 433
  • Evacuation information:
  • Notes: Of the 20 fires in the Complex the two largest are the Doe (136,430 acres) and Glade (13,088 acres). A Structure Damage Assessment Team has been ordered. Limited information is available about this incident.
August Complex Map
August Complex Map, August 22, 2020. Incident Management Team.