Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2020. On the fifth anniversary of the Redwood Complex, we are republishing it to commemorate those events. Since then, our community has undertaken a number of significant efforts to become better prepared for the next wildfire, and we hope our readers continue to work together to become more prepared and resilient.
WILLITS, 10/8/20 — Three years ago tonight, tree branches struck a power line near Potter Valley setting off sparks and starting a fire which, fanned by hot, dry winds, quickly grew into the deadliest fire in Mendocino County history. The Redwood Fire killed nine people in Redwood Valley — including teenage siblings Kai and Kressa Logan. Across Northern California 44 people died that night in what Cal Fire called the 2017 Fire Siege, which was, we now know, the beginning of a new era of terrible wildfires.
The Redwood Complex, which included the Sulfur Fire in Lake County, eventually destroyed over 500 structures and burned about 36,000 acres in Lake and Mendocino counties. At the time the Fire Siege was unprecedented, a terrible once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. We did not realize that that night marked the beginning of a new fire regime on the West Coast.
Thirteen months later the Camp Fire destroyed the entire town of Paradise, killing at least 86 people. The smoke from that fire blocked out the sun in Mendocino County. Cars turned on their headlights at noon, and temperatures dropped.
That same year the Mendocino Complex, made up of the River and Ranch fires became the largest fire in modern California history. The Ranch Fire alone burned more than 400,000 acres, and unfathomably large number at the time. Beginning only a few miles from where the Redwood Fire had started, the Ranch Fire pushed into Lake County, and eventually into Colusa County. The fire claimed only one life, that of Utahan firefighter Matthew Burchett.
Today the August Complex has dwarfed the Redwood Fire, the entire acerage of the Wine Country fires of 2017, the Camp Fire, and even the Mendocino Complex, becoming California’s first “gigafire” in modern history. It stands as of this evening at 1,020,571 acres, larger than the state of Rhode Island, and roughly the size of Sonoma County. The fire is still burning tonight, and several thousand firefighters remain on the blaze. Statewide far more than four million acres have been burned this season, a grim record — and it bears repeating that a quarter of those acres have been burned in the single monstrous August Complex.
Looking back we can see that the the night of the Redwood Fire was the beginning of a new kind of fire behavior, that we still cannot grasp. The Camp Fire darkened our skies for a day, while the August Complex gave us days of noontime darkness, and weeks where Mendocino held the ignominious title of worst air quality on Earth. The Mendocino Complex burned a chunk of the Mendocino National Forest,while the August Complex has burned essentially everything that wasn’t burned by the Mendocino Complex.
Perhaps the only silver lining is that Californians have become more adept at dealing with fire. Cal Fire has strengthened is arsenal, adding ever more powerful aircraft. Local departments have trained harder, and the mutual aid system works almost without a hitch. This year the Oak Fire, burning just north of Brooktrails, had the potential to be another deadly catastrophe, and instead the combined might of Cal Fire and local departments quickly brought it to heel, while the newly alert populous evacuated the diffuse community of Brooktrails in a matter of just three hours.
As a state and as a people we have become very good at evacuating.
So tonight, it is worth reflecting on the past three years — what we have learned from and what we have lost to fire.
Here is our first article from that night, details were still sparse, and the Redwood Fire was in the process of burning through the communications network of Mendocino County, making publishing difficult. But we tried our best to get you that breaking news three years ago, and we’ll continue to try our best to bring you the latest on all the news and all the fires that come to Mendocino County.