At the request of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire), the u.S. Forest Service, Office of emergency Services, and the national Park Service, an interagency team was convened to document key events and to provide a broad, factual overview of the fire siege. This report is the result of the team’s efforts and is dedicated to all firefighters who have given their lives protecting the lives, property, and natural resources of the people of California.
The spring of 2008 was extremely dry, allowing an early start to the already long summer fire season in northern California.
On June 20th and 21st a series of severe, dry thunderstorms carpeted the state from Big Sur to Yreka with more than 5,000 lightning strikes, and igniting over 2,000 fires. During the following months, thirteen firefighters were killed and many others were injured on fires in this siege. Over 350 structures were destroyed and hundreds of millions of dollars of property and natural resources were damaged. Thousands of people were evacuated and smoke adversely effected air quality over much of the state for weeks. Communications, power delivery, and transportation systems were disrupted.
Despite the intensive firefighting effort, some fires in remote areas continued to burn throughout the summer. By fall, over 1,200,000 acres had burned.
The firefighting effort was also large and intensive. The great number of fires combined with weather and fuel conditions, and competition for firefighting resources made fire control efforts difficult. Strong cooperation and coordination among federal, state, and local firefighting agencies was essential. At the peak of fire control operations on July 13, over 20,000 firefighters were engaged. Both the governor of California and the President of the United States toured fire operations. Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for 13 counties, and President Bush declared a state of disaster, which made available a wide variety of federal assets, including the military.
While the fires had a great impact on people and society, the extraordinary efforts of thousands of dedicated firefighters prevented even greater impacts. In California’s modern fire suppression era, this many fires starting early in the season, and burning simultaneously over such a long a period of time is unprecedented. While there have been larger, more damaging individual wildfires, this siege is the largest fire event on record in California. Fire histories reconstructed from tree rings conclude that there have been rare years when widespread fire occurred throughout the state covering millions of acres. If the fire suppression efforts during this siege had not been waged, many of these fires would have burned unchecked into the late fall, burning much additional area. The suppression efforts resulted in less area burned, reduced threat to communities, public health and safety, and reduced direct fire impacts to ecosystems.