20, 2008, 5 PM. This was the summer solstice in California—the
longest day of the year, the official start of summer.
About two weeks earlier, on June 4, Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger had declared a statewide drought. "For
the areas in Northern California that supply most
of our water, " Schwarzenegger said, "this
March, April, and May have been the driest ever in
our recorded history." Not only had it been a
dry spring, with vegetation brittle and ready to burn,
but it was also unusually windy across much of northern
California. Still no one, not even the meteorologists,
foresaw what was about to happen.
June 20, 2008 and continuing into the early hours
of June 21, severe thunderstorms swept across northern
and central California. More than 6000 lightning strikes
sparked over 2000 wildfires in 26 counties and eventually
burned 1.2 million acres—a new state record
for acres burned in a single fire event. History had
been made. "That has definitely surpassed any
of our large fire events," said Daniel Berlant,
a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry
and Fire Protection (Los Angeles Times, 15
July 2008). More than 25,000 fire-fighters from across
the state, nation, and world battled the fires. Because
the lightning fires were mainly in forests, timberlands,
and rural areas, only 511 structures were destroyed.
greatest human toll of the fires was 15 lives
helicopter crash on August 5th that killed 9
people, including 7 firefighters
from Grayback Forestry, was the deadliest air
crash involving working firefighters in U.S.
history, according to the National Interagency
Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Prior to that,
7 firefighters died in a 1972 crash in Los Padres
National Forest. The 2008 victims were part
of a crew cutting fire-lines in steep, usually
inaccessible terrain within the Shasta Trinity
National Forest. Their transport helicopter,
a Sikorsky S-61N, crashed seconds after take-off
from a remote helipad 15 miles northwest of
Junction City, CA. Four individuals survived
the crash. At the time of the crash, the Buckhorn
fire, part of the Iron Complex, had consumed
about 18,500 acres in 6 weeks. Before it was
all over, the fires in the Iron Complex burned
more than 86,000 acres.
fire fatality in the 2008 Lightning Siege occurred
on July 2 when a volunteer fire-fighter of Anderson
Valley, Bob Roland, was overcome by fatigue and smoke
while working on the Oso Fire, about 9 miles northwest
of Boonville. Four other fire-fighters died over the
course of the fires, some of causes not directly related
to the fires themselves. According to a 2007 report
by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, heart
attacks are the #1 cause of wildfire deaths for volunteer
fire-fighters and the #3 cause for all wildland fire-fighters.
Between 1990 and 2006, 310 fire-fighters died in wildfire
operations. Of these, 72 died in aircraft accidents,
71 in vehicle accidents, 68 from heart attacks, and
64 from fire itself (Los Angeles Times,
5 July 2008). Volunteer fire-fighters accounted for
34% of all those fatalities. In the period between
1990-2006, California had the highest number of wildland
firefighter deaths in the U.S., namely 64. Next highest
was Colorado with 25, followed by Texas with 19.
Lightning Complex (2008)
Mendocino Lightning Complex of 2008, one part of the
greater lightning siege, there were 129 small fires
which, over time and with the help of wind gusts,
combined into larger fires.The sheer number of fires
and their geographical extent made the event historic.
On June 26, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a State
of Emergency in Mendocino and Shasta Counties. Two
days later, President George W. Bush issued an emergency
declaration for California and ordered federal agencies
to assist firefighters. By July 19, an estimated 54,817
acres had burned in Mendocino County alone; 23,196
of those acres were on MRC forest land—10% of
our land base.
It's been said that
controlling a wildfire is not so much a battle to
be fought as a storm to weathered. Just to bring the
Mendocino Lightning Complex under
containment required 1922 fire personnel, including
917 from CAL FIRE. Apart from CAL FIRE, there were
volunteer fire-fighters from out-of-state as well
as from other countries, such as Australia and Canada.
In addition, MRC used 17 logging contractors with
50 pieces of equipment and hired about 125 contract
fire-fighters from Oregon—Grayback Forestry
and Patrick Environmental—along
with a Columbia fire-fighitng helicopter. During the
month of July, about 200 National Guard troops, camped
at Boonville, were also used for fire mop-up. By July
19th, the Mendocino fires were declared contained.
Early estimates for the cost of the fires in Mendocino
County exceed $50 million.
Those with Long Memories:
Lightning Storm of 1987
Some will recall that
on August 28, 1987, dry lightning began pounding northern
California. Every national forest there was ignited.
Over 1000 lighting strikes pierced the Shasta-Trinity
National Forest. Within two weeks, 68,090 acres had
burned in Shasta Trinity National Forest; 131,865
acres in Klamath National Forest; 77,280 acres in
Mendocino National Forest; and 128,000 acres in Stanislaus
National Forest (Ukiah Daily Journal, 11
September 1987, p. 2). Logging crews had to help federal
and state agencies fight the spreading fires. "A
total of 549,810 acres have been blackened,"UDJ
reported , "since a series of lightning storms
that began Aug. 28 touched off 1,241 fires, the worst
single series of fires in California history"
(ibid p. 2). History overtook that record on June
Updates to the Fire History
In the months ahead,
we will be adding more information to this history
website on the fires, including photos and videos.
We are also producing for our historical archives
DVDs with some of the longer interviews with individuals
such as Marc Romero, Chief of Mendocino County; Joe
Waterman, Incident Commander for the Mendocino Lightning
Complex; the MRC area foresters; as well aa others.
Meanwhile we invite you to share any of your own stories
and photos related to the recent fire-fighting efforts
in Mendocino County. Contact us either through our
or by FAX or phone.
Los Angeles Times,
Steve Chawkins, "California blazes set record
for area burned in a single ‘fire event,’
officials say" (15 July 2008) at http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/15/local/me-fires15.
Los Angeles Times,
Mary Engel, "Heart attack suspected in firefighter's
death," (5 Ju.ly 2008) at http://188.8.131.52/2008/jul/05/local/me-firefighter5.
New York Times,
Mike Nizza, "California Wildfires Set a Record"
(15 July 2008) at http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/15/california-wildfires-set-a-record/.
Journal, Randy Foster,
"Flanks watched as crews begin demobilization"
(September 11, 1987), microfilm, Held-Poage Research
Library, Ukiah, CA.