Indefinitely Wild

Visualizing the Size of California’s Largest Ever Fire

At 475 square miles, the Mendocino Complex Fire is the size of Phoenix

The 10 largest fires in California history, superimposed on a map of San Francisco for scale. 1. Mendocino Complex Fire. 2. Thomas Fire. 3. Cedar Fire. 4. Rush Fire. 5. Rim Fire. 6. Zaca Fire. 7. Matilja Fire. 8. Witch Fire. 9. Klamath Theatre Complex. 10. Marble Cone. (CalFire)

Burning about 100 miles north of San Francisco, the Mendocino Complex wildfire is the largest in California’s history. But explaining its vast scale is difficult. Let’s examine the attempts to do just that—and see if we can arrive at a good understanding of what 300,000 charred acres really looks like. 

(Google Maps)

The Complex fire is actually made up of two fires: the smaller River Fire, which has burned 48,920 acres, and the larger Ranch Fire, which has burned 255,482. Combined, that total is still only about one-tenth the size of the worst wildfire in the nation's history

Both fires started on July 27 and quickly grew in size. Extremely dry brush in the area, combined with steep hillsides, created ideal conditions for the blazes to spread.

Despite its size, the fire hasn’t proven nearly as destructive as the nearby 177,400-acre Carr Fire, which burned portions of Redding, California, destroying more than 1,000 homes and killing seven people. Meanwhile, no one has been killed by the Mendocino Complex Fire, though two firefights have been injured and 119 residences have been burned. 

Contrary to what Donald Trump appears to believe, firefighters don’t rely on water to fight fires like this. Instead, they cut breaks in the vegetation, which serve as borders that the flames can’t cross. While they’re doing that, aircraft dump retardant on unburned brush, trees, and structures. 

As of Thursday morning, crews had contained an impressive 51 percent of the fire. Given stable weather conditions, that should prevent the fire from spreading much farther, but experts say total containment could take several weeks more, largely due to the areaÆs steep, challenging terrain. 

Despite its massive size, the Mendocino Complex Fire was far from a worst-case scenario. But it will still prove incredibly expensive to fight. Currently, there are 404 fire engines, 93 water tenders, 19 helicopters, 84 bulldozers, and 4,019 personnel tasked with containing it. Additional fire crews have been brought in from surrounding counties and states, and from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. 

Finally, perhaps the best way to get your head around the fire’s size comes from NBC, which has created a tool that allows you to superimpose the fire's perimeter over any address in the U.S. 

Filed To: CaliforniaWildfireIndefinitely Wild
Lead Illustration: CalFire
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