Mendocino Redwood Company


Fire from the Sky

Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does all the work.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)
The reason lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place is that the same place isn't there the second time.
 Willie Tyler (1940-   )
Man is the only creature that dares to light a fire and live with it. The reason? Because he alone has learned to put it out.
Henry Jackson Vandyke, Jr. (1852-1933)

California Lightning Siege (2008)

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June 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.

Beginning 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.

The greatest human toll of the fires was 15 lives lost. A 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.

The earliest 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.

Mendocino Lightning Complex (2008)

In the 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.

For 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 20, 2008.


Learn More About
Click a link.
State and Federal Statistics on the Lightning Siege of 2008
Largest Lightning Fires in California since 1932
Largest Wildfires in California since 1932
Condor Chick Survives Lightning Fires in Redwood Treetop
Power of Lightning

Future 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 online form or by FAX or phone.

Secondary Sources

Los Angeles Times, Steve Chawkins, "California blazes set record for area burned in a single ‘fire event,’ officials say" (15 July 2008) at

Los Angeles Times, Mary Engel, "Heart attack suspected in firefighter's death," (5 2008) at

New York Times, Mike Nizza, "California Wildfires Set a Record" (15 July 2008) at

Ukiah Daily Journal, Randy Foster, "Flanks watched as crews begin demobilization" (September 11, 1987), microfilm, Held-Poage Research Library, Ukiah, CA.



 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California