The 5 Worst SoCal Brush Fires in Modern Times

A 2008 brush fire near Porter Ranch
A 2008 brush fire near Porter Ranch
Ted Soqui/L.A. Weekly

This usually seems counterintuitive to Southern California transplants, but one of the worst times of year for brush fires here is the end-of-year holiday season — when the air can be dry and Santa Ana winds blow compressed, warming air down the mountain slopes and into the brittle canyons.

Still, every year, fire season seems to start a little earlier and end a little later. And there are those who argue there's no such thing as fire season in Southern California anymore, especially with this nearly six-year drought.

Indeed, with San Bernardino County's Pilot Fire burning at least 4,500 acres and sending a few dozen households to seek shelter, we thought it might be an apropos time to look at the five largest brush fires in modern SoCal history.

It's a subjective list that favors destruction over acreage, more recent blazes over ancient ones. There are probably a few mega-fires left off the list — because they were in remote areas and did comparatively little immediate damage to humanity. If you want a definitive list of California's largest wildfires, it's right here.

5. Station Fire, Los Angeles County. This 2009 arson fire in the Angeles National Forest above the San Gabriel Valley foothill communities burned more than 160,000 acres, destroyed 209 structures and even threatened broadcast antennae and the space research observatory on Mount Wilson. Two firefighters were killed when the rig they were in went over a mountainside.

4. Freeway Complex Fire, Orange County. This 2008 fire blazed a trail through the county, affecting Anaheim Hills, Yorba Linda, Chino Hills and Diamond Bar. The Orange County Register wrote that, at one point, the blaze burned "14 football fields worth of land every minute." The fire destroyed 187 homes as well.

3. The 2007 fires, Southern California. It was one of those years that lent credence to your out-of-town relatives' insistence that Southern California is doomed to be destroyed in some kind of natural disaster. At times it seemed like the entire region was ablaze, and NASA space shots made L.A. look like the lit end of a cigar. More than a million acres — from the border to Santa Barbara County — went up in flames. In fact, the Harris Fire east of San Diego raged on both sides of the border. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in multiple counties. The worst of the blazes included the Witch and Harris fires in San Diego County, which destroyed 1,650 and and 472 structures, respectively. Two deaths were attributed to the Witch Fire; one person died in the Harris Fire.

2. Old Topanga Fire, Malibu. This 1993 brusher is the one that comes to mind when you think of destructive, end-of-times Malibu fires. It happened in the year between the riots and the Northridge earthquake, so the outlook for SoCal's future at the time was quite dim. (Oh, to go back in time and buy some property in Venice.) Live television footage was apocalyptic as the blaze scorched 16,800 acres, caused three deaths and destroyed 268 homes. Who'd ever want to live there?

1. Cedar Fire, San Diego County. This is the fire, in 2003, that had us really wondering if all of Southern California was going to burn to the ground. We saw urban residents of the nation's eighth-largest city genuinely wondering if a wall of flames was going to invade neighborhoods nowhere near brush. It raged from near the coast to near the desert, scorching 273,246 acres, destroying 2,820 structures and killing 15. It was part of three major fires in October that year that the U.S. Forest Service called the "2003 Southern California fire siege." See a map of the fires here. The federal service called the Cedar Fire the "largest fire in California history."

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