The Biggest Fire You’ve (N)ever Heard Of

There’s a controversy underway right now, with both sides confidently appealing to the historical record to bolster their position. So naturally, only one of them can be on the right side of history.

Our local history gets used and abused in all sorts of unexpected ways. In this case, it’s an on-going argument about how to fight wildfires in Southern California. Should we throw everything we’ve got at them? Or is it better to let them burn themselves out naturally, and only protect homes and property?

The “full suppression” crowd has been in control of our firefighting services for more than a century now. The result, says the other side, is an unnatural build-up in the fuel load, so when big fires aren’t immediately suppressed, they turn into the roaring infernos we’ve seen in recent years.

No, the full suppression advocates reply. The big fires today are no worse than the big fires decades ago, before full suppression even began. And to prove it, they point to a number of 19th century fires – and that’s where the historical battles begin.

According to the full suppression supporters, in the late summer of 1889 a fire began at the northern end of the Santa Ana Mountains and burned all the way to Oceanside! This 100-mile swath of destruction, they claim, is bigger than any fire in the full suppression era. This would be strong support for their position, except for the fact that it just never happened.

For proof, they turn to a few short newspaper articles and the recollections of a 15-year-old boy, set down more than 45 years later.

The headlines from the out of town papers are impressive:



(San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1889)




(San Francisco Examiner, September 25, 1889)



Great Fires Raging Around Santa Ana

(Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1889)

A widely reprinted telegraphic report assured readers around the country that:

“The fire which has been burning for the past two days still continues in the cañons. The burned and burning district now extends over one hundred miles from north to south, and is 10 to 18 miles in width. Over $100,000 worth of pasture and timber has been destroyed.” (Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1889)

Those figures would make the 1889 blaze three times as large as the 273,000-acre Cedar Fire in San Diego County in 2003.

But almost all of these exaggerated news accounts were later withdrawn, and the local papers made sport of the other papers’ mistakes. Take this item about Madame Modjeska's husband:

 “Count Bozenta, who is in New York, received the impression from the many exaggerated telegraphic reports sent from here in regard to the fire, that his house in the Santiago Canyon had been burned, and telegraphed here yesterday morning to have the insurance policies looked after. He was misinformed. No damage has been done to his buildings.” (Santa Ana Weekly Blade, October 3, 1889)

The Orange News reprinted this little gem:


“Santa Ana, September 25. — Serious results are reported from the great foothill fire to-night. Charles Baker, a rancher living up Santiago Canyon, rode into Orange with a team and a hive of bees in his wagon. While driving over the burning district the hind end of the wagon was burned off and the bees were consumed. One horse expired shortly after arriving in Orange, and the other is in a serious condition. The man is also badly scorched. Much of his clothing is burned off and his hands and face seriously blistered.”

They then added:

“Mr. Baker, who is an old newspaper man, reads such reports as the above with a good deal of interest, and hopes the reporters won’t kill him outright before they get through with him. He did not receive any injury, and his horses are doing well….” (October 9, 1889)

The truth of the matter is, there were several separate fires burning up and down Southern California in September 1889, aided by Santa Ana Winds. The fire in the Santa Ana Mountains began around Fremont Canyon, and burned south and east across the upper end of the Irvine Ranch, much as the recent Santiago Fire did (which by the way means it was more of a brush fire than a forest fire).

The 1889 fire is just one piece of “evidence” thrown around in this debate. Studies of other early fires, comparisons between fires in San Diego County and Baja California (which have similar ecosystems, but different fire fighting approaches), and analysis of modern fires are all being considered. To date, the full-suppression crowd remains committed to their position. Hopefully they are better scientists than historians.

(Brett Goforth of UC Riverside first brought the controversy to my attention. See his article with Richard Minnich, “Evidence, Exaggeration, and Error in Historical Accounts of Chaparral Wildfires in California” in the Ecological Society of America’s journal, Ecological Applications, v 17 n 3 (2007), pp. 779–790.

A counter-blast from Jon Keeley and Paul Zedler appeared two years later as “Large, High-Intensity Fire Events in Southern California Shrublands: Debunking the Fine-Grain Age Patch Model” Ecological Applications, v 19 n 1 (2009), pp. 69–94.)