This Month In Cal OES History: 1985 Statewide Fires

When conditions are ripe, California can become a raging inferno. That’s exactly what happened 31 years ago this month, and is eerily similar to what is occurring currently in the central and southern parts of the state.

Fires burning in seven different counties – San Diego, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Ventura – accounted for three deaths and injured 470 in 1985. Among the injured were 346 firefighters.

The fires consumed more than 357,000 acres, destroyed 215 homes and damaged 131 homes and businesses and 71 miscellaneous structures and vehicles.

The Normal Heights Fire in the Mission Valley canyons of San Diego was fueled by heavy brush and strong winds. Burning 300 acres, destroying 76 houses and damaging 57 others, the reported damage was $9 million.

Approximately 400 firefighters – including 40 off duty from the San Diego Fire Department – and 98 engines responded to the fire, which forced the evacuation of up to 1,500 residents. Additional mutual aid came from Ventura, Imperial, Riverside and Orange counties.

Flames barreling through four Southern California counties destroyed at least 64 homes in San Diego County and scorched nearly 30,000 acres in Riverside, Los Angeles and Ventura counties

Also in July that year, two residents died and another 11 were injured when 52 homes were engulfed by a fire in the Los Angeles residential neighborhood of Baldwin Hills.

In San Luis Obispo, the Las Pilitas Fire consumed 75,000 acres and burned 10 homes. With temperatures above 100 degrees, a hot piece of carbon from a car exhaust ignited dry grass along Las Pilitas road, similar to what occurred during the Park Hill Fire in 2015.

The Santa Cruz Mountains were surrounded by a lightning-caused blaze, referred to as the Lexington Fire, forcing as many as 4,000 residents to abandon their homes and cabins. The Lexington Fire was fanned by wind gusts of 30-40 mph in the mountains of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz as nearly 700 firefighters battled the blaze.

Overnight, the Rat Fire in Monterey County expanded from 3,000 to almost 12,000 acres near Big Sur. Also caused by lightning, the fire was dealing with the same type of strong winds as the Lexington Fire.

The Wheeler Canyon Fire near Ventura was the worst of the wildfires during that stretch. The brush fire above Wheeler Hot Springs burned for 15 days, destroyed 120,000 acres and required the assistance of more than 3,000 firefighters.

California is already in the midst of another busy fire season. The Sherpa and Border fires in Santa Barbara and San Diego counties, respectively, combined to burn more than 15,000 acres, and the San Gabriel Complex Fire, which combined the Fish and Reservoir fires, totaled nearly 6,000 acres.

The deadly Erskine Fire in Kern County near Lake Isabella had scorched more than 45,000 acres in four days, destroyed 200 single residences and contributed to the deaths of two residents. The blaze was only 40 percent contained as of June 27.

Erskine Fire in Kern County

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) supplied 50 mutual-aid fire engines to battle the Erskine Fire along with 59 local government engines. Governor Edmund G. Brown declared a state of emergency in Kern County on June 24.

Complicating containment of the fires was record-breaking heat last week in Southern California and consistent temperatures near or above 100 degrees in Northern and Central California beginning over the weekend and lingering into this week. Learn how to beat the heat here.

Enduring a fifth year of historic drought, Cal OES joined CalFire and multiple other agencies to reduce fire risks by initiating a tree removal project earlier this month in Tuolumne County.

Stay updated with the latest fire incidents at CalFire, and find additional information from the Cal OES Fire and Rescue Division here.


Jonathan Gudel

Jonathan Gudel is a Public Information Officer for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Since joining Cal OES, he has assisted in the response and recovery efforts of the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak, the state's historic drought, the Oroville Dam Emergency Spillway Incident, unprecedented winter storms in 2017, the October (Sonoma County) and December (Santa Barbara County) 2017 wildfires, and statewide wildfire siege in 2018 . Previously, he worked in the newspaper industry for 12 years.

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