A Timeline of Natural Disasters in California

Out-of-control earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, and heat waves have ravaged California since 1989.


Compiled by the U.S. News library staff

July 2006: The Central Valley and Los Angeles regions suffered through a severe heat wave for nearly two weeks. (Fresno had six days with a high temperature above 110 degrees, a new record.) More than 140 people, mainly elderly residents, died because of the extreme temperatures.

February 2005: After a winter of record precipitation, torrential rainstorms hit Southern California. The already drenched ground gave way in many places. At least nine people died as a result of the storms, most in sinkholes and mudslides.

Jan. 10, 2005: Following days of heavy rain, a mudslide swept into the small town of La Conchita, about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Ten people died, and 13 homes were destroyed.

Oct. 25, 2003: An inexperienced hunter who became lost in the Cleveland National Forest outside San Diego lit a fire in an attempt to signal rescuers. The blaze, known as the Cedar fire, soon burned out of control and during the next six weeks spread to over 270,000 acres. Fifteen people died, including one firefighter. More than 2,200 houses were destroyed.

October-November 2003: The Old fire was set by an arsonist in San Bernardino County on October 25. Local firefighters were already on duty just a few miles away, fighting the Grand Prix fire. The two fires eventually merged and spread through communities in the San Bernardino Mountains. Before it was over, more than 90,000 acres and 1,000 buildings had been burned. Six people died—not from the flames but from heart attacks brought on by the stress of evacuating.

January-February 1998: The El Niño weather phenomenon brought weeks of heavy rain to California, causing mudslides and road damage. Over the course of the winter, 17 people died in the storms. Thirty-five counties were declared federal disaster areas, and property damage was estimated at $550 million.

Jan. 17, 1994: At 4:30 a.m., a 6.7-magnitude earthquake shook the Los Angeles area. The quake, with its epicenter in suburban Northridge, destroyed buildings and freeways in the heavily populated area, killing more than 50 people and leaving 20,000 homeless. Recovery took months, and costs ran to about $30 billion. Officials estimated that the death toll would have been much higher if the quake had not hit so early in the morning, when many people were still at home.

October 1991: Drought conditions and heavy winds turned a brush fire into a blaze that surged through steep, wooded areas near Oakland and Berkeley. It spread to more than 1,500 acres before firefighters could extinguish the flames. Twenty-five people were killed, and thousands of houses and apartments burned.

Oct. 17, 1989: About 5 p.m. local time, a 6.9-magnitude earthquake hit central California, close to the cities of Santa Cruz and San Francisco. This, the strongest earthquake along this fault line since 1906, was felt as far east as Nevada. The quake knocked down buildings, started fires, and left San Francisco without power for several days. More than 60 people died, including dozens who were killed in bridge collapses. Millions of television viewers learned of the quake as they tuned in for a World Series game that was just about to begin at San Francisco's Candlestick Park.

Associated Press
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
California Geological Survey
CBS News
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Los Angeles Times
National Climatic Data Center
New York Times
Orange County Register
San Diego Union-Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle
San Jose Mercury News
Southern California Earthquake Data Center
USA Today
USDA Forest Service
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S.News & World Report
Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco