In the 20 years they have lived in Yreka, Vina Swenson and her husband have parked their car and prepared to flee a fire five times – twice in the past two years.
“We never had to leave,” Swenson said Sunday, as flames burned less than five miles away. “So the reality probably didn’t hit me” that this one could engulf their house.
Sunday morning, the McKinney fire – the biggest yet of this year’s fire season in drought-stricken California – had destroyed more than 51,468 acres in the Klamath National Forest near California’s border with Oregon, destroying homes and threatening hundreds more. It was 0% contained.
Swenson, 54, watched as firefighters cut brush in front of his home, which sits in a pool surrounded by heavily forested mountains in the Northridge neighborhood, squarely within the city’s evacuation zone. The sun was trying to peek through the smoke, turning his neighborhood an eerie orange.
“It’s reassuring that they’re keeping us safe, but the fact that they’re clearing here makes me think they’re expecting the fire to reach here,” Swenson said. She said they would leave as soon as they saw flames coming over the surrounding mountains.
About 650 firefighters battling the blaze were battling triple-digit heat and possible thunderstorms that could trigger dangerous conditions. A red flag warning was in effect due to scorching temperatures, which averaged around 100 degrees on Sunday, officials said.
“The fire is getting more energetic and the potential for fire spread is increasing,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Jonathan Garner. “It just becomes a more active fire when the temperatures warm up like this.”
All this makes fire behavior unpredictable. “And it’s dangerous for firefighters,” Garner said.
One of the firefighters on the front line is Tyler Johnson, 21, who checked in with his mother, Diane, on Sunday morning before leaving for a shift.
It’s their routine, she said. At the end of his break he will call to say he is heading to the command center and then back into the fray.
“It’s just a quick ‘I love you, be safe,'” Diane Johnson said, a hitch in her voice.
The 49-year-old county planner had evacuated to Placerville about four and a half hours away. Her husband, the sheriff’s deputy, stayed behind to help with evacuations in Yreka and to make sure homes weren’t looted.
“Yreka is definitely of concern, as are other populated areas like Fort Jones,” said US Forest Service spokeswoman Caroline Quintanilla. “So we are focused on protecting people, life and property.”
Officials said Sunday that firefighters are prioritizing protecting Fort Jones, Yreka and other communities in the Highway 96 corridor from the blaze, which could burn for weeks. Route 96 was closed along the Klamath River, where crews worked overnight to prevent homes and buildings from burning, forestry officials said in a social media update.
Quintanilla said firefighters were exploiting old bulldozer lines from past fires in the area.
“This area gets a lot of fires,” Quintanilla said. “But the particular area where the fire is currently burning hasn’t burned since the mid-1950s. So that’s also part of the concern and the complexity, because it hasn’t burned for a long time.
Jonathan Dixon, 37, who lives at the western end of Yreka, told The Times his house would likely be among the first to be burned as the blaze continues to spread.
He said he fled to the Bay Area and expected his collection of antiques, sculptures and other art nouveau works to perish.
“I’m terrified of my house burning down and I’ve kind of accepted that,” Dixon said.
Dixon, a card dealer and gaming supervisor at the local casino, tried to put a positive spin on his losses, saying he was ‘kind of a hoarder’ and intended to get rid of some things .
“It’s a problem that’s been solved, but not in the way I wanted,” he said.
Still, he said the casino may also have to close, and if that happens, he could lose his home and a source of income. He urged other reluctant parents to leave Yreka as soon as possible and give up trying to save their possessions.
“I was telling them not to worry about packing, your life is more important, get out of there,” Dixon said.
Many residents of this neighborhood around Humbug Road are elderly, Dixon said, and will likely face significant obstacles trying to leave.
Jan Williamson, 66, fled her home in the Northridge neighborhood with her husband and 40-year-old daughter Leanne, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy.
Williamson said the evacuation was particularly difficult for Leanne as she has severe autism and has been agitated as her daily routines of watching television and listening to music are disrupted. The Williamsons had to self-isolate in their motorhome due to the heavy smoke in the air.
Trapped and unable to speak, Leanne tends to bite herself “hard and often” when frustrated, her mother said.
Jan Williamson and her husband had to leave behind a range of equipment used to care for their daughter, including an electric lift system that carries her from bed to bathroom.
“Whenever it’s particularly bad like this, we just have to take a minute or two at a time and get through each day,” Jan Williamson said.
The Red Cross opened a shelter in the town of Weed on Saturday evening after closing its location in Yreka when the area was ordered to evacuate, said Stephen Walsh, a spokesman for the organization.
Twenty-two people are staying at the shelter, where they are offered beds, food and spiritual care, Walsh said.
“They can stay as long as they need, and obviously the shelters are open to everyone,” he said.
Siskiyou County officials created a web page to help residents find dogs, cats and livestock rescued in the evacuation zone. The animals were cared for in various shelters.
The fire started around 2:38 p.m. Friday near Highway 96 and McKinney Creek Road southwest of the Klamath River, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The cause is still under investigation.