Natural and Man-Made Disasters


How damaging were the California wildfires of 2003?

The wildfires that raged in southern California in late 2003 were the most damaging in the state’s history: 15 fires destroyed 3,000 homes, burned 750,000 acres, caused more than 200 injuries, and claimed 24 lives. The fires produced one of the worst disasters the state had ever seen. The wildfires began October 21 and, driven by Santa Ana winds, swept through wooded canyons and mountain communities in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties. On October 27 President Bush declared a disaster area, clearing the way for federal assistance. Firefighters worked into early November to bring the blazes under control. The fires had forced mandatory evacuations and caused widespread air pollution. Damages were estimated between $2.5 and $3 billion.

Although southern California was devastated by the emergency, and the western wildfires were in the national headlines, the 2003 fire season was, on the whole, about average. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), 85,943 fires burned in U.S. wildlands during the 2003 season; the 10-year average (1993–2002) was 101,575 fires per season. The number of acres burned in 2003 was 4,918,088, with a 10-year average of 4,663,081 acres per season. (The 2004 fire season burned almost 2 million acres more than in 2003.) But the NIFC acknowledged that the number of structures destroyed was above average in 2003: a total of 5,781 structures were burned, including 4,090 primary residences, leaving many homeless. Federal agencies alone spent $1.3 billion to suppress wildfires across the United States in 2003—considerably higher than the 10-year average.

A wildfire burns along the edge of a highway in Lake Arrowhead, California, 2003.The fires that raged in southern California that year were the most damaging in the state’s history.

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