FACT CHECK: Is The Camp Fire The ‘Deadliest And Most Destructive’ Wildfire In California History?

Brad Sylvester | Fact Check Editor

California Sen. Kamala Harris claimed that the Camp Fire in California is the “deadliest and most destructive” wildfire in the state’s history.

“Today I’m headed to Butte County, California to meet with firefighters, local officials, and evacuees impacted by the Camp Fire, now the deadliest and most destructive fire in our state’s history,” she tweeted Nov. 18.

Verdict: True

The Camp Fire in northern California, while not the largest by acreage, is the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, having destroyed nearly 19,000 structures as of Sunday. It is also the most deadly, claiming the lives of at least 85 people.

Fact Check:

The Camp Fire – named after Camp Creek Road, its place of origin – began on Nov. 8 and has burned 153,336 acres of land in Butte County, California. The state fire agency announced Sunday that it had been 100 percent contained, meaning a perimeter has been formed around the blaze.

The Woolsey Fire in southern California also began on Nov. 8 and burnt nearly 100,000 acres before it was contained.

The Camp Fire has destroyed more structures than any other wildfire in California state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Of the 18,793 structures destroyed, 13,972 were residences, 528 were commercial structures and 4,293 were other buildings.

No other wildfire in California’s history has destroyed even half as many structures.

The Camp Fire is also the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. The latest count puts the death toll at 85, with more than 200 people still unaccounted for, leaving open the possibility that the death toll could rise. The Griffith Park wildfire of 1933, which killed 29 people, was the next deadliest.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation and might take months to determine. Some allege that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. may be at fault. The utility reported a power line outage in Butte County only minutes before Cal Fire received word of the fire.

The cause of the Tubbs fire from last October, the second most destructive wildfire in California state history, is still being investigated more than a year later. The Tubbs fire destroyed over 5,000 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Many experts suggest that a combination of dry conditions and strong winds contributed to the destructiveness of the Camp Fire.

A lack of rain in recent months had created “mid-summer-like conditions,” Tim Chavez, a fire behavior analyst for Cal Fire, told CNN.

Most of California is experiencing some degree of drought, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System, with 59 percent experiencing moderate drought and 18 percent experiencing severe to extreme drought.

Late fall winds, commonly known as the Santa Anas, were key to spreading the recent wildfires, according to experts. “The biggest factor was wind,” Philip Dennison, a professor at the University of Utah and an expert on wildfires, told ABC News. “With wind speeds as high as they were, there was nothing firefighters could do to stop the advance of the fires.”

While the Camp Fire has destroyed more buildings and killed more people than any other wildfire in state history, it’s not the largest by acreage. The Mendocino Complex fire from July of this year was the largest recorded, burning 459,123 acres. However, it only destroyed 280 structures and killed one person, according to Cal Fire.

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Brad Sylvester

Fact Check Editor
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