Summer 2008 California wildfires

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Summer 2008 California wildfires
Summer 2008 California wildfires
The wildfires as seen from space on July 9, 2008.
Location Northern and Central California
Cost Over $92.38 million (2008 USD)[1]
Date(s) May 13, 2008 – September 10, 2008
Total wildfires Around 3,596[2]
Burned area 1,161,197 acres (469,920 ha)[3][4][5]
Ignition source Lightning strikes, heat, human-caused
Injuries (non-fatal) At least 92[6]
Fatalities 32[7]

The Summer 2008 California wildfires, collectively dubbed the Northern California Lightning Series by CAL FIRE, were a concentrated outbreak of wildfires during the late spring and summer of 2008. Over 3,596 individual fires were burning at the height of the period, burning large portions of forests and chaparral in California, injuring at least 34 individuals and killing 32.[8] The majority of the fires were started by lightning from dry thunderstorms on June 20,[9] although some earlier fires ignited during mid-May. International aid from Greece, Cyprus, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand helped fight the fires.[10]

The Basin/Indians Fire in the Ventana Wilderness became the third largest wildfire in California's history based on size (until it was surpassed in size by the 2013 Rim Fire), and also the second costliest wildfire to extinguish in U.S. history.


The fires broke out after three years of below-normal rainfall dehydrated much of California's forests and woodlands, making them prone to wildfires. Spring 2008 for California was the driest on record for many locations; for example, San Francisco registered only 0.67 inches (17 mm) of rain out of a normal of 5.18 inches (13 cm) from March to May.[9][11] As vegetation turned into bone-dry tinder in early June, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought for the first time in 17 years.[12] Dry thunderstorms and lightning, rarely seen on the California coastline in June, rolled onshore on the weekend of June 20–21. The storm unleashed 25,000 to 26,000 dry lightning strikes across Northern and Central California, igniting more than 2,000 fires.[13][14] The number of wildfires skyrocketed in the days after the thunderstorms and high daily daytime temperatures of over 120 °F (49 °C) dramatically increased the various fires' growth.[9] The same thunderstorms also caused fires in Oregon.[citation needed]

A heat wave commenced on July 7, with temperatures in inland locations, such as the Central Valley soaring above 115 °F (46 °C). Lake Berryessa recorded a high temperature of 126 °F (52 °C), prompting weather agencies like the National Weather Service to issue high fire danger warnings.[15] These near to record-breaking temperatures concerned many firefighters, who feared that the high heat, low humidity, and high-elevation winds could make firefighting more strenuous.[16][17]

Contributing factors[edit]

John Juskie, a National Weather Service science officer, was quoted in June 2008 in the Los Angeles Times stating "in historic terms, we're at record dry levels."[18] The spring of 2008 not only broke the record for least inches of rainfall, at 0.17 of an inch, it represented less than one-third of the previous record low of 0.55 of an inch of rainfall in 1934.[18]

A record lack of rainfall, severely dry vegetation and uncharacteristically windy weather combined to create tinderbox conditions across Northern California.[18] In most areas of Northern California, the grasses and brush were as dry in June as they normally would be in October. Moisture content was less than 2%, compared with about 40% normally for this time of year, fire officials stated. In addition, "no one has seen a springtime like this with the winds," Juskie said.[18]

Fire history[edit]

The first of the wildfires was the Big Horn Fire, which ignited on May 13.[19] Three other minor wildfires ignited subsequently, but were extinguished by May 17. On May 20, the Avocado Fire ignited in Fresno County, only to be extinguished 2 days later.[20] On May 22, 2008, the human-caused Summit Fire broke out in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which became the first major fire.[21]

Basin and Indians Fire[edit]

Indians Fire[edit]

On June 8, 2008, the next major fire to break out was the Indians Fire in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest in the Santa Lucia Range.[22] During the weekend of June 21–22, a dry low-pressure system crossed over California producing dry lightning and ignited nearly 2000 fires across 17 counties.

By July 5, 2008, 328 wildfires were burning, and those fires were only 81% contained.[23] For the first time since 1977, the military helped with ground-based firefighting, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger dispatched 400 California National Guard troops, including Chief Medical Officer Susan Pangelinan, to manage fire lines.[4][24] He said the number of fires had stretched the state's fire-fighting resources thin. "One never has resources for 1,700 fires. Who has the resources for that?" Schwarzenegger said, adding "Something is happening, clearly. There's more need for resources than ever before... it's fire season all year round".[25]

Basin Complex Fire[edit]

J.P. Burns Area 9/1/2008

The lightning-caused Basin Complex Fire near Big Sur started on June 21 and burned 162,818 acres (65,890 ha), eventually torched the Ventana Wilderness until it merged lines with the Indians Fire in the Santa Lucia Range. The Basin and Indians Fires consumed a combined 244,000 acres (99,000 ha) and became the third-largest fire in California history. More than $120 million was spent to fight the fire, making it is the most expensive fire in California history, and the second most expensive in U.S. history, exceeded only by the Biscuit Fire in 2002.[26]

The Basin and Indians Fires forced the evacuation of Big Sur prior to the July 4 holiday weekend.[27] Camp Pico Blanco was forced to evacuate the camp and diverted its Scouts to Boulder Creek Scout Reservation in Santa Cruz. The camp lost only one building, an outlying ranger's cabin.[28] Big Sur residents were permitted to return on July 9.[29] while further north, the town of Paradise in Butte County was evacuated when flames burned close.

Other wildfires[edit]

On July 5, 2008, California Governor Schwarzenegger commented that "I've been driving up and down the state of California going to all the various fires, and you can imagine, this state is very prepared for fire, but when you wake up one morning and have 500 fires across the state, it was a real shock to me... only to find the next morning there were 1,000 fires, and the next morning 1,400 fires, and then 1,700 fires igniting over 14 days."[4]

The Gap Fire near Goleta in Santa Barbara County burned 8,357 acres (3,382 ha).[30] The fire was contained on July 29, after several weeks of activity.[31]

By July 11, 2008, it was reported that a total of 793,483 acres (321,111 ha) was burned, a total exceeding the initial estimate of 510,000 acres (210,000 ha) burned by the October 2007 California wildfires.[32] On July 12, 2008, the area burned reached 801,726 acres (324,447 ha), exceeding the estimated 800,000 acres (320,000 ha) burned by the 2003 California wildfires, making the Summer 2008 wildfires the greatest wildfire event in Californian history, in terms of burned area. On that date 20,274 personnel had been committed to fight the fires. Total resources included 467 hand crews, 1,503 engines, 423 water tenders, 291 bulldozers, 142 helicopters, 400 soldiers and numerous air tankers. The fire was responsible for the deaths of 23 individuals.[33][34]

On July 25, a blaze sparked by target shooting broke out in Mariposa County, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of central California.[35] By the following day, the Telegraph Fire had gone from 1,000 acres (400 ha) to 16,000 acres (6,500 ha), and within days had destroyed 21 homes in the community of Midpines. Residents were evacuated from approximately 300 homes that were immediately threatened, with an additional 4,000 homes placed on standby for evacuation in Midpines, Greeley Hill, and Coulterville.[36]

During August, wildfire activity began to diminish, although there were still hundreds of wildfires still burning. On August 29, wildfire activity had ended, although three more wildfires ignited after September 1,[37] beginning with the Gladding Fire.[38] On September 10, the Colony Fire was 100% contained, ending the last of the Summer 2008 California wildfires.[39]

Smoke and air quality[edit]

Air quality in northern and central California deteriorated as a result of smoke from the wildfires, especially in the Central Valley from Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley section to Redding in the northern Sacramento Valley section.[40][41]

Northern California[edit]

From June 21 to June 27, much of Northern California was covered in a thick blanket of smoke, which reduced visibility and turned the sky yellow and the Moon red.[9][41][42][43]

Some areas endured record levels of air pollution, along with hazardous concentrations of particulate matter.[40] These smoky and hazy conditions prompted health officials to issue air quality advisories and warnings, as particulate matter reached unhealthy levels in the North Bay on June 25.[44] In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District urged the elderly and people with respiratory problems to stay indoors.[9] In spite of the warnings, health officials noted a jump in the number of people with eye and throat irritation. The bad air quality also forced the cancellation of the 100-mile (161 km) Western States Endurance Run, the first in the race's 31-year history.[40] Air quality began to improve on June 28,[40] followed by decreased smoke and improved visibility a day later.[45] By June 30, residents in the Sacramento Valley saw blue skies and good air quality, as a result of onshore winds and the Delta breezes.[46]

However, air quality in Oregon degraded as plumes of smoke drifted northward instead of concentrating in the Central Valley.[47]

Spare the Air[edit]

Hazy conditions returned on July 7, along with high temperatures over 100 °F (38 °C) in the Central Valley. The heat and smoke combined forced public health officials and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue "Spare the Air" advisories and an emergency plan for heat waves, respectively.[15][48] Air quality districts issued another Spare the Air day for July 8, July 9, and July 10, as calm wind conditions in Northern California failed to blow away the smoke from the wildfires.[15][49] Smoky conditions continued into late August, when most of the wildfires were extinguished. The smoke from the fires finally began to disperse on September 10, after the last of the wildfires was fully contained.

View east of the smokey sky, from Carson City, Nevada (11 July 2008).

See also[edit]


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  4. ^ a b c Saillant, Catherine; Bailey, Eric (2008-07-02). "Push is on to stall Goleta fire before winds; more evacuations at Big Sur". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
  5. ^ "Wildland Fire Information". CAL FIRE. Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
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  11. ^ Larson, Elizabeth (2008-06-16). "Dry weather, spring freeze cost local farmers millions". Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
  12. ^ Zito, Kelly; Yi, Matthew (2008-06-05). "Governor declares drought in California". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
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