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California's Soberanes Wildfire Is the Most Expensive in U.S. History

The product of an illegal campfire, the active blaze has cost $207 million to battle.

A firefighting helicopter flies over part of the Soberanes blaze in July near Carmel Valley, California. (Michael Fiala/Reuters)

Central California is under a pollution alert for air more normally seen streaming from a pig smoker than in the sky. Multiple fires throughout the state are carbonizing vast amounts of forest, where the vegetation is dry as a wick from hot temperatures, scant precipitation, and years of persistent drought.

Now, one of the largest and longest-lasting of these blazes—the Soberanes Fire in the Los Padres National Forest—has become the most expensive wildfire to battle in U.S. history. Reports the Associated Press:

The fire has cost $206.7 million to fight so far, the National Interagency Fire Center said in a report. And with the blaze at only 67 percent containment, there could be weeks left before the firefight is done.

That puts it well past the previous high of $165 million established by a blaze that burned in California and Oregon in 2002.

The figure does not include the actual damages done by the fire like destroyed homes, only the costs of extinguishing and containing it.

The cost of battling the fire soared to $8 million daily during its worst period, though it’s now down to about $2 million a day. If its costs are adjusted for inflation, the 2002 California/Oregon Biscuit Fire would win out as the priciest—but, as the AP notes, there’s still a ton of work to be done in putting it out, likely adding a hefty amount to its expenses.

The Soberanes Fire arose from an illegal campfire on July 22 and has proven extremely difficult in containing. This false-color satellite image from NASA, taken September 15, shows the location of the fire next to its immense burn scar:


Soberanes might not keep its dismal honorific for long. As the world continues to heat up—this August tied for the warmest month in known history—wildfires like this one are predicted to become larger and more frequent in many parts of America.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.