By Noah Berger ASSOCIATED PRESS
YREKA, Calif. – Crews battling major wildfires in California and Montana worked to protect remote communities on Sunday as hot, windy weather across the tinder-dry U.S. West created the potential for even more spread.
The McKinney Fire was burning out of control in Northern California’s Klamath National Forest as erratic lightning storms swept through the region just south of the Oregon state line, said U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Adrienne Freeman.
“The fuel beds are so dry and they can just erupt from that lightning,” Freeman said. “These thunder cells come with gusty erratic winds that can blow fire in every direction.”
The blaze exploded in size to more than 80 square miles (207 square km) just two days after erupting in a largely unpopulated area of Siskiyou County, according to a Sunday incident report. The cause was under investigation. The blaze torched trees along California Highway 96, and the scorched remains of a pickup truck sat in a lane of the highway. Thick smoke covered the area and flames burned through hillsides in sight of homes.
A second, smaller fire just to the west that was sparked by dry lightning Saturday threatened the tiny town of Seiad, Freeman said. About 400 structures were under threat from the two California fires. Authorities have not confirmed the extent of the damage yet, saying assessments would begin when it was safe to reach the area.
A third fire, which was on the southwest end of the McKinney blaze, prompted evacuation orders for around 500 homes Sunday, said Courtney Kreider, a spokesperson with the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office. The office said crews had been on the scene of the fire since late Saturday but that the fire Sunday morning “became active and escaped its containment line.”
Several people in the sheriff’s office have been affected by evacuation orders due to the fires “and they’re still showing up to work so, [a] very dedicated crew,” she said. A deputy lost his childhood home to fire on Friday, she said.
Larry Castle and his wife, Nancy, were among about 2,000 residents of the Yreka area under evacuation orders. They left Saturday with some of their prized possessions, including Larry’s motorcycle, and took their dogs to stay with their daughter near Mount Shasta.
He said he wasn’t taking any chances after seeing the explosive growth of major fires over the past few years.
“You look back at the Paradise fire and the Santa Rosa fire and you realize this stuff is very, very serious,” he told the Sacramento Bee.
In northwest Montana, a fire sparked in grasslands near the town of Elmo grew to more than 11 square miles (28 square km) after advancing into forest. Temperatures in western Montana reached 96 degrees (36 Celsius) on Sunday afternoon with strong winds, the National Weather Service said.
A portion of Highway 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo was closed because of thick smoke, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
To the south in Idaho, the Moose Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest has burned on more than 75 square miles (196 square km) in timbered land near the town of Salmon. It was 21 percent contained by Sunday morning. Pila Malolo, planning operations section chief on the fire, said in a Facebook video update that hot, dry conditions were expected to persist Sunday. Officials said they expected fire growth in steep, rugged country on the fire’s south side.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Saturday as the McKinney Fire intensified. The proclamation allows Newsom more flexibility to make emergency response and recovery effort decisions and access federal aid.
California law enforcement knocked on doors in the towns of Yreka and Fort Jones to urge residents to get out and safely evacuate their livestock onto trailers. Automated calls were being sent to land phone lines as well because there were areas without cell phone service.
Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier in 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 U.S. Forest Service closed a 110-mile (177-km) section of the trail from the Etna Summit to the Mt. Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.
In Hawaii, the Maui County Emergency Management Agency said a brush fire was 90 percent contained but a red flag warning was in effect for much of Sunday.
Associated Press journalists Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, and Sam Metz in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.