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Erratic winds from thunderstorms fanned the McKinney Fire burning in western Siskiyou County, causing the fire to spread to more than 30,000 acres in 24 hours.
The fire in the Klamath National Forest started around 2:15 p.m. Friday and there was no containment as of mid-afternoon Saturday.
Brush, tall grass and trees were on fire in the Oak Knoll Ranger district of the forest, where the blaze started west of the Walker Creek Bridge on the south side of the Klamath River. The flames had skipped Highway 96 as air strike planes flew overhead.
Firefighters were receiving help on Saturday from two very large air tankers and two other small air tankers.
Interstate 96 was closed from Interstate 263, approximately 2 miles west of Interstate 5, to Scott River Road. The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office was posting updates to its Facebook page asking residents to evacuate the fire area.
Klamath National Forest spokeswoman Caroline Quintanilla said the fire was estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 acres as of Saturday afternoon.
“We had a lot of lightning Friday night and little rainfall and that’s part of what started this fire,” she said.
Quintanilla said conditions were changing so quickly that she didn’t have an accurate map of the fire’s boundaries.
“At this point I don’t have a perimeter map because with the erratic winds there’s no specific direction it’s moving,” Quintanilla said. “It’s all over the map. Things haven’t stabilized in any discernible pattern.”
She arrived at Forest Service headquarters before 7 a.m. Saturday to see a giant plume of smoke to the west, a dramatic sight everyone in town has also seen.
National Weather Service meteorologist Misty Firmin in Medford, Oregon, said the McKinney Fire created a pyrocumulus cloud on Friday.
“I had various reports. One of my colleagues said it was 39,000 feet. Another said it was 45,000 feet,” Firmin said.
She said pyrocumulus clouds form the same way thunderstorms develop.
“If a fire burns hard enough and strong enough, it can kind of create its own atmosphere. It gets so hot that it creates its own cloud, and the cloud grows bigger and turns into pyrocumulus clouds,” she said.
Quintanilla said heat signatures were detected in the plume by infrared thermal imaging.
Fire crews were dealing with very hot temperatures as a red flag warning was in effect for lightning, fire officials said.
On Friday evening, firefighters reported smoke coming from the Klamath River Post Office and trees across the road near Walker Bridge.
People on social media described a fire tornado that occurred around midnight in the area of the fire.
Firefighters were prioritizing the evacuation of residents and making sure everyone was okay.
“We’re not even working on containment at this point. We’re working on catching up on the fire, evacuating people and making sure everyone is safe,” she said from the US Forest office. Service in Yreka.
The McKinney fire wasn’t the firefighters’ only concern. The China2 Fire and the Evans Fire also started on Friday and had burned together by Saturday over an estimated 300 to 350 acres, forestry officials said. This fire was 2-3 miles west of Seiad.
“Resources are limited, however, as the majority of available personnel are working aggressively to slow the fast-moving McKinney Fire,” fire officials said.
Winds from the late evening thunderstorms caused the McKinney Fire to grow significantly from Friday evening through Saturday morning. The blaze was about 18,000 acres as of Saturday morning before growing even bigger.
At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, a firefighter reported to firefighters on his radio that a 35 mph wind was blowing from the southwest accompanied by rain.
MPs were busy on Saturday canvassing the affected areas, telling residents to evacuate. Residents of West Siskiyou County can go to zonehaven.com and type in their address to see which evacuation zone they are in.
By late Saturday morning, the McKinney Fire was about 12 miles west of Yreka. At this time, evacuation warnings were in place for areas west of Yreka with an area spanning Interstate 5 north of town.
A California incident management team was in Yreka on Saturday for briefings and will take over Sunday morning, officials said.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Crest Trail Association was telling hikers in western Siskiyou County on Saturday to evacuate to the nearest town.
“Weather conditions, including heavy lightning, lead to extreme fire behavior and hazardous conditions,” the association said on its website.
The group was spreading word that the Forest Service had closed a 110-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail from the summit of Mount Etna to Mount Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.
Mike Chapman is an award-winning journalist and photographer for Record Searchlight in Redding, California. His newspaper career spans Yreka and Eureka in Northern California and Bellingham, Washington. Support local journalism by subscribing today.