Wildfires in California near the Oregon and Montana border erupted overnight in windy, hot conditions and quickly encroached on neighborhoods, forcing evacuation orders for more than 100 homes on Saturday, as a fire in Idaho spread.
In California’s Klamath National Forest, the rapid McKinney Fire, which started on Friday, grew from just over 1 square mile to burn up to 62 square miles on Saturday in a largely rural area near the line of Oregon State, according to firefighters.
“It continues to grow with erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area and we have triple digit temperatures,” said Caroline Quintanilla, spokeswoman for Klamath National Forest.
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Meanwhile, in Montana, the Elmo wildfire nearly tripled in size to more than 11 square miles (about 28 square kilometers) within a few miles of the town of Elmo. About 200 miles south, Idaho residents remained under evacuation orders as the Moose Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest charred more than 67.5 square miles of land wooded areas near the town of Salmon. It was contained at 17%.
A heavy accumulation of vegetation was fueling the McKinney Fire, said Tom Stokesberry, U.S. Forest Service spokesman for the region.
“It’s a very dangerous fire – the geography there is steep and rugged, and that particular area hasn’t burned in a while,” he said.
A small fire was also burning nearby, outside the town of Seiad, Stokesberry said. With lightning forecast for the next few days, resources from across California have been mobilized to help fight the area’s fires, he said.
McKinney’s explosive growth has forced crews to shift from trying to control the fire’s perimeter to trying to protect homes and critical infrastructure like water tanks and power lines, and assisting with evacuations in Siskiyou County, the northernmost in California. The fire is located west of Interstate 5.
Deputies and law enforcement were knocking on the doors of the county seat of Yreka and the town of 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.
More than 100 homes were ordered to evacuate and authorities were warning people to be on high alert. Smoke from the fire caused the closure of portions of Highway 96.
“We are asking residents across the region to be prepared,” said Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Courtney Kreider. “Last night we were pushing evacuations about every hour, and large parts of the county are in alert zones.”
Moments later, she said, “Oh – we just added another area to the evacuation warning.”
The Pacific Coast Trail Association urged hikers to get to the nearest town while the US Forest Service closed a 110-mile (177-kilometre) section of the trail from Mount Etna’s summit to Mount Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.
Oregon State Rep. Dacia Grayber, who is a firefighter, was camping with her husband, who is also in the fire service, near the California state line when high winds woke them up just after midnight.
The sky shone with lightning in the clouds, as ash blew over them, despite being in Oregon, about 10 miles away. The intense heat from the fire sent up a massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud, which can produce its own weather system, including winds and thunderstorms, Grayber said.
“It’s the worst winds I’ve ever seen and we’re used to big fires,” she said. “I thought it was going to rip the tent off the roof of our truck. We got out of there.
As they exited, they passed hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail fleeing to safety. They offered rides, but one hiker said he’d just have a beer, which they gave her, she said.
“The terrifying part for us was the wind speed,” she said. “It went from a fairly cool blustery night to hot, dry hurricane force winds. Usually this happens with a fire during the day, but not at night. I hope for everyone’s sake that this goes away. is fading, but it looks like it will get worse.
In western Montana, the wind-driven Elmo Fire forced the evacuation of homes and livestock as it ripped through grass and woods, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Idaho. The agency estimated that it would take almost a month to contain the fire.
Smoke shut down part of Highway 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo due to heavy smoke, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
Crews from several different agencies were battling the blaze on Saturday, including the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes Fire Division. Six helicopters were making drops on the fire, aided by 22 ground engines.
In Idaho, more than 930 wildland firefighters and support personnel were battling the Moose Fire on Saturday and protecting homes, energy infrastructure and the Highway 93 corridor, a major north-south route.
A red flag warning said the weather could make matters worse with the forecast calling for “dry thunderstorms”, with lightning, wind and no rain.
Meanwhile, crews made significant progress battling another major fire in California that forced the evacuation of thousands of people near Yosemite National Park earlier this month. The Oak Fire was 52% contained Saturday, according to an incident update from Cal Fire.
As wildfires raged across the West, the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved sweeping legislation to help communities across the region cope with growing wildfires and drought – fueled by climate change – that have caused billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses in recent years.
The legislation approved by federal lawmakers on Friday combines 49 separate bills and would increase the pay and benefits of firefighters; stimulate resilience and mitigation projects for communities affected by climate change; protect watersheds; and making it easier to get federal help for wildfire victims.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has sponsored a similar measure.