What's The Worst Wildfire In California History? The Butte & Valley Fires Are Devastating, But The State Has Seen Worse

Firefighters light a backfire while battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, California on September 12, 2015. Wildfires have spread rapidly through northern California, destroying hundreds of homes, forcing thousands of people to flee and injuring four firefighters. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Two massive wildfires have continued to wreak havoc across Northern California. The Butte fire near the Sierra Nevada mountains has been raging since Wednesday and has already scorched over 65,000 acres just southeast of the state capital. Substantial portions of both Amador and Calaveras Counties are facing mandatory evacuations, as the fire is threatening at least 6,400 homes. Meanwhile, the Valley Fire to the northwest has burned 40,000 acres in just one day's time and has forced a mandatory evacuation of whole cities in Napa County and Lake County. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency as thousands of firefighters continue to battle both blazes. Despite the devastation, the state has seen even worse wildfires. What is the worst forest fire in California history?

In 2003, Sergio Martinez became separated from a friend he was hunting with and set two fires in Southern California's Cleveland National Forest to signal his whereabouts. The illegal blazes would become the Cedar Fire, which burned a total of 273,246 acres — more than four times more land than the Butte Fire has currently affected, and nearly seven times as much as the Valley Fire. A total of 2,400 homes were destroyed, and 15 people lost their lives to the fire. As of this writing, no deaths have been reported in either the Valley or the Butte Fires, but many homes have been lost.

Perhaps the area most heavily devastated by the wildfires has been the small community of Middletown, which saw the evacuation of its 1,300 citizens and the destruction of countless homes and commercial buildings. Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who works in nearby Monte Rio, was one of the firefighters who responded to the section of the Valley fire that inundated Middletown. Baxman described the scene to The Press Democrat as like nothing he'd ever seen before:

I’m looking in all directions, and all I see is fire. This is unreal. ... This thing just blew up on us.

Although experts have marveled at the rate in which the Valley Fire has spread in just a day's time, the 40,000 acres that are currently burning at 0 percent containment are much less than the 100,000 acres of land burned by the 2003 Cedar fire in just 10 hours' time. Likewise, the Butte Fire has spread substantially slower compared to the two and is showing a 20 percent containment. It's unclear just how financially devastating both the Butte Fire and the Valley Fire have been to the state of California, as both continue to burn. All told, damages from the Cedar fire totaled around $800 million.

Around 4,000 fire personnel are currently deployed to fight the Butte Fire with the Valley Fire showing similar numbers. At its worst, nearly 14,000 people were battling the the Cedar fire. That influx of much needed personnel was thanks to a state of emergency being declared, thus it's highly likely that numbers will continue to increase as more and more firefighters try to contain the devastating wildfires currently burning. Under Brown's state of emergency proclamation, which was issued on Saturday, the National Guard has been mobilized to attend to the Valley Fire. The last time a state of emergency was declared was on Friday for the Butte Fire, showing just how serious both fires have become.

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