Wildfire north of Sacramento is largest in California history — and it may not be done growing

Six of the 20 largest fires on record have taken place this year.

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By Dennis Romero

California has never before seen a fire as large as the one burning now on federal land north of Sacramento.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, on Thursday put the August Complex Fire in Mendocino National Forest atop its list of the largest wildfires in the state. Six of the 20 largest fires have taken place this year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has blamed climate change for the current crop of fires, said Thursday that 2.6 million acres have burned in California this year. Cal Fire officials updated the number to 3.1 million Thursday afternoon.

The August Complex Fire is a combination of 37 fires sparked by lightning in Mendocino National Forest on Aug. 17, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement. It has so far burned 471,185 acres and is 24 percent contained.

Forest Service spokesman Terry Krasko suggested that the fire may actually be bigger. He said an airplane with infrared capabilities that measure the size of a blaze was out of service Thursday.

The fire became known as the August Complex Fire about five days ago, when numerous blazes combined, Krasko said. Many smaller fires have been extinguished, he said, but larger parts of the fire, including the Doe Fire, continued to grow Thursday afternoon.

The August Complex Fire unseated the previous largest fire, 2018's Mendocino Complex Fire, which burned more than 459,000 acres.

Federal officials say triple-digit temperatures and offshore gusts gave the fire a growth spurt over Labor Day weekend. The forecast in the area calls for calmer winds and cooler high temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s.

Thunderstorms, the suspected culprit in sparking the blaze, were forecast to return Tuesday.

California's August fires, including three of the four largest in state history — the August Complex Fire, the 396,624-acre SCU (Santa Clara Unit) Lightning Complex Fire and the 363,220-acre LNU (Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit) Lightning Complex Fire — prompted President Donald Trump to criticize state officials Aug. 23.

"You've got to clean your floors. You've got to clean your forests," he said in Pennsylvania. "There are many, many years of leaves and broken trees, and they're, like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up."

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Trump suggested that California taxpayers could be on the hook because the state has failed to prevent the calamities. "Maybe we're just going to have to make them pay for it, because they don't listen to us," he said.

At least 17 of the 20 largest fires in state history have raged on federal land, mostly national forests or Bureau of Land Management property.

The Cedar Fire in 2003, then the largest wildfire in state history, started in Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County. In 2017, the Klamath Theater Complex Fire, the state's 15th-largest fire, started in Klamath National Forest.

At least 12 people have died in the last month as 29 major wildfires burn in California, from San Diego County to Siskiyou County, Cal Fire said Thursday.

The National Interagency Fire Center said Thursday that 102 active large fires have burned 4.4 million acres in 12 states across Alaska and the West.