Home Top News A Look Back at California’s Deadliest Wildfires

A Look Back at California’s Deadliest Wildfires

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By any measure, the wildfires burning across Northern California are among the deadliest and most destructive in state history.

As of late Thursday, four of them collectively accounted for 31 deaths. The single deadliest fire in California history killed 29 people, in 1933.

The current fires, more than 20 in total, have destroyed at least 3,500 structures and scorched 191,000 acres — enough land to cover Manhattan 13 times.

Officials at Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency, don’t usually lump separate — but simultaneous — blazes together for record keeping. And a spokeswoman said Wednesday that they’re unlikely to start now.

Sheriff Rob Giordano of Sonoma County said late Thursday that 17 people in the county were dead. He said he suspected that the Tubbs fire was responsible for all the fatalities. If that proves to be true, Cal Fire officials said that that fire would rank as the third deadliest in state history.

Cal Fire officials say the second deadliest fire was also the state’s most destructive: The Tunnel fire of 1991 resulted in 25 deaths and destroyed 2,900 structures.

The deadliest wildfire in state history, however, was relatively small. The Griffith Park fire of 1933 killed 29 people despite burning just 47 acres, said the Cal Fire spokeswoman, Lynne Tolmachoff.

How was that possible? Newspaper reports at the time offer an explanation: The men fighting the fire were largely untrained.

In 1933, the United States was emerging from the Great Depression and men desperately needed work. They got an opportunity on Oct. 3.

A report in the The New York Times the next day said that a man had performed the “careless act” of tossing a lit cigarette on the side of the road. (Different news reports suggested other causes.)

When the blaze broke out in Griffith Park, thousands of workers were already there or nearby, widening roads, maintaining the park and doing other projects, according to the Times report, as well as an article in The Los Angeles Times.

In the end, about 4,000 men were “hastily recruited” to help battle the blaze. Many were from “unemployment lists who had gone into the brush covered foothills of the extensive city park reservation in preference to remaining on local charity rolls,” The New York Times reported.

“Many of them knew little about the woodlands,” the article added. Soon, workers became “victims of the brush blaze simply because they became bewildered or panicky and lost their way when the fire advanced, roaring toward them.”

The New York Times’s initial report said that 33 people — not 29 as Cal Fire and The Los Angeles Times say — were “trapped in gullies and ravines,” where they were “felled by the smoke and gases” and ultimately “burned to death.”

There have been multiple attempts to memorialize the victims, The Los Angeles Times said, including a plaque that disappeared and a bronze sculpture destroyed by a flood. As recently as 2007, students planted 29 pine trees atop a Griffith Park ridge to honor the men who died.

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