UPDATE: The August Complex fire, burning since Aug. 16 across seven Northern California counties, has grown to 1,002,097 acres, making it California’s first 1 million-acre wildfire. This story published Sept. 20 looked at the toll on several Mendocino County communities that have been in the fire’s path over two months.
COVELO — Longtime forester Chris Baldo pressed his rough palms onto the ash-covered bark of a massive white oak, a casualty of a wildland blaze that consumed much of the Mendocino National Forest and could become California’s first million-acre fire.
Estimated at 500 years old, this monumental oak, its trunk nearly 7 feet in diameter, had long ago cracked open near the base, a wound healed into a smooth and contoured cavity.
It persevered through countless fires over the centuries, even as Douglas fir bullied its way into this Northern California wilderness, crowding into meadows, saplings littering the forest floor and adding dangerous fuel for fires.
Baldo paused just a moment to lean in to this tree, a marvel he would visit in what he called his cathedral grove on his 200 acres adjacent to federal forestland high above the Black Butte River about 15 miles east of Covelo, a remote outpost in Mendocino County.
“Older trees that grew up surviving fire after fire after fire can’t survive the temperatures and the type of fires we’re having now,” said Baldo, who stayed despite evacuation orders and kept fire away from three cabins. “You can read the paper and see changes in the icebergs, for the polar bears. But if you pay attention right here, you can see it.”
The August Complex fire started with the only way nature causes fire: lightning. But its growth from 37 separate wilderness fires into a massive inferno larger than the state of Rhode Island is covered in human fingerprints.
Generations of putting out fires instead of letting them burn. The Earth’s rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Drier winters. The end of traditional Native American prescribed burning to remove undergrowth. The incursion of nonnative species. These have all set the stage for this massive fire to burn.
Even if the 833,967-acre August Complex fire doesn’t quite hit the one million acres mark, it has already unseated the 459,123-acre Mendocino Complex fire that ignited in July 2018 as California’s largest wildfire.
Together, these fires will have blackened most of the canyons and valleys that comprise the Mendocino National Forest, a 913,306-acre refuge for wildlife and playground for those who love California’s rugged wildlands.
Days into the lighting-strike fires started mid-August, Mendocino National Forest Superintendent Ann Carlson said she was filled with intense dread. She didn’t have enough fire resources to attack all of the fires in the forest because of the sheer number of blazes being fought across Northern California, including the Walbridge fire in Sonoma County and the Hennessey fire that started in Napa County.
Her division had spent the last two years felling trees, shoring up roads and had just reopened the remaining campgrounds from the areas in the 2018 fire scar. She knew how blazes of the past years moved so quickly through the dry and dense forests and recalled wondering, “Where is this going to end?“
Five weeks later, the western edge of the August Complex still burns mostly uncontrolled at 10% containment Saturday, with interior spotting, uphill runs and torching, though officials dare to hope they have turned a corner with the help of moderate weather and successful defensive burning by fire crews. Carlson has allowed herself to start thinking ahead to how the fire may give the forest service a head start in clearing the type of vegetation that is more fire fuel than ecological benefit.