On Sunday, crews battling major wildfires in California and Montana worked to protect remote communities as hot, windy weather in the dry, dry western United States created the potential for even greater spread.
The McKinney Fire was spiraling out of control in the Klamath National Forest in northern California as erratic thunderstorms swept through the area just south of the Oregon state line, the spokeswoman said of the US Forest Service, Adrienne Freeman.
“The fuel beds are so dry and they can just burst from this flash,” Freeman said. “These thunder cells are accompanied by erratic gusty winds that can blow fire in any direction.”
The blaze swelled to more than 80 square miles (207 square km) just two days after erupting in a largely uninhabited area of Siskiyou County, according to an incident report on Sunday. The cause was under investigation. The blaze torched trees along California’s Highway 96, and the burned remains of a pickup truck lay in a lane of the freeway. Thick smoke blanketed the area and flames burned across the hills within sight of homes.
A second, smaller fire just to the west, sparked by dry lightning on Saturday, threatened the small town of Seiad, Freeman said. About 400 structures were threatened by the two California fires. Authorities have yet to confirm the extent of the damage, saying assessments will begin when it is safe to reach the area.
A third fire, which started at the southwest end of the McKinney Fire, triggered evacuation orders for about 500 homes on Sunday, said Courtney Kreider, a spokeswoman for the county sheriff’s office. by Siskiyou. The office said crews had been at the scene of the blaze since Saturday evening, but the blaze on Sunday morning “became active and escaped its containment line.”
Several people in the sheriff’s office have been impacted by evacuation orders due to the fires “and they’re still showing up for work, so (a) very dedicated team,” she said. An MP lost his childhood home in a fire on Friday, she said.
Larry Castle and his wife, Nancy, were among approximately 2,000 residents of the Yreka area under evacuation orders. They left on Saturday with some of their most prized possessions, including Larry’s motorcycle, and took their dogs to their daughter’s home near Mount Shasta.
He said he was taking no chances after seeing the explosive growth of major fires in recent years.
“You look back at the Paradise fire and the Santa Rosa fire and you realize these things are very, very serious,” he told the Sacramento Bee.
In northwestern Montana, a fire that started in the prairies near the town of Elmo grew to more than 28 square kilometers after entering the forest. Temperatures in western Montana could reach 96 degrees (36 degrees Celsius) Sunday afternoon with high winds, the National Weather Service said.
A portion of Highway 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo was closed due to heavy smoke, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
In southern Idaho, the Moose Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest burned more than 75 square miles (196 square km) in forested land near the town of Salmon. It was 21% contained on Sunday morning. Pila Malolo, fire planning operations section chief, said in a Facebook video update that hot, dry conditions were expected to persist on Sunday. Officials said they expected the fires to grow in steep and rugged country on the south side of the blaze.
California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Saturday as the McKinney Fire intensified. The proclamation gives Newsom more flexibility to make emergency response and recovery effort decisions and access federal assistance.
California law enforcement knocked on doors in the towns of Yreka and Fort Jones urging residents to get out and evacuate their livestock safely in trailers. Automated calls were also sent to landline telephones as there were areas with no cell phone service.
Scientists say climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
The Pacific Coast Trail Association urged hikers to get to the nearest town while the US Forest Service closed a 110-mile (177 km) section of the trail from Mount Etna’s summit to Mount Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.
In Hawaii, the Maui County Emergency Management Agency said a brushfire was 90% contained, but a red flag warning was in effect for much of Sunday.
Associated Press reporters Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska; Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Sam Metz in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.