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Smith River Complex Fire: A Lightning Triggered Disaster That Threatened Lives and Property


The Smith River Complex Fire was one of California’s deadliest wildfires of 2023. Beginning on August 15, when lightning strikes ignited 27 different fires near Oregon border in Six Rivers National Forest, this fire scorched over 95,000 acres over three months, destroyed over 30 structures and homes, and forced thousands to flee for safety before finally being contained and controlled on November 13, after long and hard battle between firefighters and responders.

The Outbreak and Spread of the Fire

Smith River Complex Fire
Smith River Complex Fire

The Smith River Complex Fire was composed of 12 individual fires located within Del Norte County’s Gasquet Ranger District. Of these 12 fires, two were most active: Kelly Fire and Coon Fire – these two eventually joined forces on August 31, 2023 creating one massive inferno that threatened several communities and critical infrastructure. Fueled by dry conditions coupled with rugged and inaccessible terrain which rendered suppression efforts impracticable and caused intense fire behavior including torching, spotting and crowning; making control difficult to achieve and containment impossible.

The Impact and Damage of the Fire

The Smith River Complex Fire had a devastating effect on lives and property of those living in its path, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). According to them, 54 residences, 77 outbuildings and 2 commercial properties were destroyed or damaged as reported by CAL FIRE; 12 residences and 9 outbuildings were also damaged. Furthermore, power lines, communication towers, water systems and roads were threatened while Highway 199 between California and Oregon had to be closed due to fire and rock slides caused by this fire; furthermore it also presented health risks for public and firefighters due to smoke, ash release by this fire.

The Response and Recovery of the Fire

The Smith River Complex Fire required a massive and coordinated response from various agencies and organizations both locally and nationally, both at an operational and tactical level. Multiple incident management teams took control of different stages of the blaze as required. Oregon State Fire Marshal also provided support, deploying resources to assist fire suppression and structure protection efforts in the northern zone of the fire. The fire involved a number of resources such as helicopters, air tankers, dozers, engines, crews and water tenders, to fight it from both air and ground levels. Furthermore, assistance was granted by FEMA who approved funds to reimburse eligible costs associated with suppression and recovery from this blaze.

Recovery efforts continue in response to the fire, with affected individuals and communities working hard to rebuild their lives and property. The fire also left behind an unsightly landscape which will require restoration and rehabilitation; its aftermath also highlighted the necessity of improved fire prevention measures, better preparedness plans, as well as collaboration and cooperation among various parties involved in its response and recovery.

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