Mendocino Complex Fire: Here’s How It Compare’s With World’s Biggest

The Mendocino Complex Fire continues to ravage California, claiming lives and causing destruction to homes, structures and the land. It has grown to over 300,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in California’s history, but over the years the world has seen fires up to three times Mendocino’s size.    

Black Friday Brushfire, Australia, 1939

On January 13, 1939, a series of brushfires in Victoria, Australia, broke out and eventually burned 4.9 million acres of land, destroyed 1,000 homes and took the lives of 71 people. In the two days that the fires burned, five entire towns were destroyed, according to the Victoria state governments site.

The area had been experiencing a dry, hot summer ahead of the January 13 blazes, and strong winds helped fan the flames. Following the devastating fires, the Forests Act of 1939 was legislated, giving the then Forests Commission the ability to take complete control of fire suppression on public land. Planned burning was established in spring and autumn to help protect forests in the event of a fire.

In 2009, Australia saw another destructive series of brushfires, dubbed the Black Saturday Brushfires, which killed 173 people, injured over 400 and burned over 1.1 million acres, according to the National Museum of Australia.

Chinchaga Fire, British Columbia, 1950

The Chinchaga Fire was also sparked during an exceptionally hot period. What began as a small wildfire posing no threat to human life on July 2, 1950, would burn for 222 days and damage about 3.5 million acres, according to the Edmonton Journal. From September 24 to September 30, smoke palls were so thick that they blocked out the sun and led some people to believe an atomic bomb had been set off.  

“So too everyone my age and older remembers another event: a Sunday afternoon in 1950 when the sun ceased to give her light and our primitive fears of darkness, mortality and powerlessness rose at least near enough to the surface to etch a lasting trace that belied our outward calm,” local historian Norman Carlson wrote, according to the Edmonton Journal.

The smoke spread as far as England and Holland. Cordy Tymstra, a Ph.D. student at the University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources, told Phys.org that the blaze showed what a wildfire could become if it isn’t fought. At the time, the policy was for firefighters to ignore fires that were 15 kilometers away from human settlements, according to the Edmonton Journal.

Miraculously, despite the fire’s widespread damage, there were no reported deaths.

GettyImages-1013051814 A firefighter monitors a backfire while battling the Medocino Complex Fire near Lodoga, California, on August 7. The Mendocino blaze has grown to be the largest in California’s history. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Great Fire of 1910, United States

The Great Fire of 1910, also known as the Big Burn, began during a dry period and scorched an area the size of the state of Connecticut. On August 20, 1910, a cold front from the West caused over 90 major fires in Montana and Idaho to merge into one gigantic blaze, according to Popular Mechanics.

The blaze claimed the lives of seven civilians and 78 firefighters. Grand Forks, North Dakota, and the Montana towns of Taft, DeBorgia, Henderson and Haugan were all destroyed by the fire. One-third of the town of Wallace, Idaho, was lost.

Timothy Egan, author of The Big Burn, told Smithsonian.com that the flames burned 3 million acres in only 36 hours. The U.S. Forest Service was created in 1905, and the Great Fire of 1910 was the first organized effort to fight a blaze, the effects of which can still be seen today. 

“If you walk around there, you can see still standing some of the blackened, scarred hulks from the Big Burn,” said Egan.

Miramichi Fire, 1825, Canada, United States

Burning along the Miramichi River in October 1825, the Miramichi Fire consumed 3 million acres, claimed the lives of 160 people and destroyed the homes of 15,000 residents, according to CNN. Along with the Canadian providence of New Brunswick, the state of Maine was also hit by the blaze.

Although there aren’t very many records of the fire, it’s largely regarded as one of the worst in North American history, and an estimated 200 people died, according to Maclean's

Richardson Backcountry Fire, 2011, Canada 

In May 2011, the Richardson Backcountry fire broke out and required what would be a monthslong battle, burning almost 1.5 million acres in Canada. Several hundreds of firefighters were sent to counter the blaze, and smoke grounded planes, according to the Northern Journal.

“When you can’t fly in or out of here, it’s pretty scary,” Fort Chipewyan councilor David Blair told the Northern Journal.

Oil sand facility workers were evacuated, according to USA Today, though the fire burned in an area that didn’t directly threaten large cities.

Mendocino Complex fire Battalion Chief Matt Sully directs operations against the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, burning near Clearlake Oaks, California, on August 5. NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images

Taylor Complex Fire, United States, 2004

In 2004, the Taylor Complex Fire burned over 1.3 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That year was a particularly bad one for Alaska in terms of wildfires; at the time the Taylor Complex Fire broke out, at least 100 other fires were burning throughout the state, according to an Associated Press article posted on Firehouse.com. The fires were caused by lightning and threatened structures, but no buildings were damaged and fortunately no one was killed.

Peshtigo Fire, 1871, United States

The Peshtigo Fire burned a whopping 1.2 million acres, destroying the city of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in only an hour, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). The fire, which broke out on October 8, 1871, took the lives of 1,200 people. Its cause was never determined, but the prolonged drought and strong autumn storm system fueled its ability to spread to such epic proportions.

"What most researchers find so fascinating is the effect [the Peshtigo fire] had on people's lives. It was so horrific," Debra Anderson, an archivist for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Area Research Center, told the NWS. "Some people thought it was the end of the world."

This is far from a complete list of the devastation that wildfires have caused throughout history and takes into consideration only a small portion of the fires that have caused destruction. 

Some other extremely devastating groups of fires occurred in Russia in 2003, when 157 fires burned over 47 million acres in Siberia, according to The Guardian, and the 1989 fires in the Canadian providence of Manitoba. Over 8 million acres were burned, 24,000 people were evacuated, and the disaster led to the creation of new emergency plans in 15 communities, Maclean's reported.