KLAMATH RIVER, Calif.
A week ago, the quaint northern California hamlet of Klamath River was home to about 200 people and had a community center, post office and corner grocery store. Today, after a wildfire raged through the wooded area near the Oregon border, four people died and the store was among the few buildings not burned down.
At an evacuation center on Wednesday, Bill Simms said three of the four victims were his neighbors. Two were a married couple who lived down the road.
“I’m not emotional about things and material things,” Simms said. “But when you hear my next door neighbors are dead…it gets a little emotional.”
The 65-year-old retiree bought his property six years ago as a second home with access to hunting and fishing. He said the Klamath River is a place people are drawn to because they can have privacy and enjoy nature.
He returned to check his property on Tuesday and found that it had been destroyed.
“The house, the guesthouse and the motorhome were gone. It’s just a wasteland, a devastation,” Simms said. He found the body of one of his two cats, which he buried. The other cat is still missing. He was able to take his two dogs with him to the shelter.
The McKinney Fire broke out on Friday and was still out of control on Wednesday, despite firefighters making progress as they took advantage of rain from thunderstorms and falling temperatures.
But even the welcome rainfall posed problems. On Tuesday, heavy rains swelled rivers and streams and a private contractor in a pickup truck helping to fight the fires was injured when a bridge gave way and swept away the vehicle, said office spokeswoman Courtney Kreider. from the Siskiyou County Sheriff. The contractor was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, she said.
More than 100 buildings ranging from houses to sheds burned down. Identifying the four people killed could take several days, Kreider said.
The blaze has charred nearly 90 square miles (233 square kilometers) and is the largest in California so far this year. The cause is unknown.
With rain and cooler temperatures, the blaze grew very little and firefighters said crews used bulldozers to dig firebreaks along a ridge to protect homes and buildings in Yreka and surrounding area, which has a population of approximately 7,800 and is the largest city in Siskiyou County.
On Wednesday, evacuation orders for residents of Yreka and Hawkinsville were downgraded to warnings, allowing people to return home. But they were warned the fire remained a threat and told to be ready to flee again if necessary.
Skies were mostly clear on Wednesday and temperatures were in the mid to high 90s, baking an already parched landscape.
California and much of the rest of the West are experiencing drought and wildfire danger is high, with the worst fire season yet to come. Fires are burning in Montana, Idaho and Nebraska and have destroyed homes and threaten communities.
Scientists say climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. California has seen its largest, most destructive and deadliest wildfires in the past five years. In 2018, a massive fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills destroyed much of the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, the highest number of wildfire deaths in the United States in a century.
When it started, the McKinney Fire only burned several hundred acres and firefighters thought they would get it under control quickly. But thunderstorms came with fierce gusts of wind that within hours had pushed it into an unstoppable conflagration.
Roger Derry, 80, and his son, Rodger, were among the few Klamath River families whose homes were spared from hell. The Derry elder, who has lived in the unincorporated town for more than four decades, said the fire was terrifying.
“When this fire came over this ridge line it had 100ft flames for about 5 miles and the wind was blowing. It fell like a solid blowtorch,” he said. “There was nothing to stop him.”
Harlene Schwander, 82, lost the house she had just moved into a month ago to be closer to her son and daughter-in-law. Their house survived but his house was burnt down.
Schwander, an artist, said she only managed to take a few family photos and jewelry before evacuating. Everything else, including his art collection, caught fire.
“I’m sad. Everyone says it was just stuff, but it was all I had,” she said.
In northwestern Montana, a fire that destroyed at least four homes and forced the evacuation of about 150 residences west of Flathead Lake continued to be pushed north by winds on Wednesday, said fire officials.
Crews had to be pulled from the lines Wednesday afternoon due to increased fire activity, Sara Rouse, a public information officer, told NBC Montana.
It was feared the fire could reach Lake Mary Ronan by Wednesday evening, officials said.
The fire, which started on July 29 in the grass of the Flathead Indian Reservation, quickly moved into the woods and charred nearly 29 square miles (76 square km).
The Moose Fire in Idaho has burned more than 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) in the Salmon-Challis National Forest while threatening homes, mining operations and fisheries near the town of Salmon. And a wildfire in northwest Nebraska prompted evacuations and destroyed or damaged several homes near the small town of Gering. The Carter Canyon Fire started on Saturday as two separate fires that merged.
Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporters Amy Hanson in Helena, Montana; Margery Beck in Omaha, Nebraska; and Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.