Fires in California and Montana erupted in size overnight in windy, hot conditions and quickly flooded neighborhoods, forcing evacuation orders for more than 100 homes on Saturday, as a wildfire in Idaho spread.
In Klamath National Forest, California, the rapid McKinney fire, which began on Friday, went from burning just over 1 square mile (1 square kilometer) to burning up to 62 square miles (160 square kilometers) by Saturday in one hour. Predominantly rural area near the Oregon state line, according to firefighters.
“It is continuing to grow with irregular winds and thunderstorms in the area and we are in triple-digit temperatures,” said Caroline Quintanilla, spokesperson for Klamath National Forest.
Meanwhile, in Montana, the Elmo fire 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 (320 kilometers) south, Idaho residents remained under evacuation orders as the Moose Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest charred more than 67.5 square miles (174.8 square kilometers) in a wooded land near the town of Salmon. It was contained 17%.
A significant buildup of vegetation was fueling the McKinney fire, said Tom Stokesberry, a US Forest Service spokesman for the region.
“It’s a very dangerous fire – the geography is steep and rugged, and this 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 in the coming days, resources from all over California were being brought in to help fight the region’s wildfires, she said.
McKinney’s explosive growth forced crews to move from attempting to control the perimeter of the fire to attempting to protect homes and critical infrastructure such as water tanks and power lines, and to assist with evacuations in Siskiyou County, the more northerly than California.
Congressmen and law enforcement officers were knocking on the doors of the county seat of Yreka County and the city of Fort Jones to urge residents to get out and safely evacuate their livestock on trailers. Automated calls were also sent to landline phone lines because there were areas with no cell phone service.
Over 100 homes have been evacuated and authorities have warned people to be on high alert. Smoke from the fire caused portions of Highway 96 to close.
“We are asking residents throughout the area to be ready,” said Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Courtney Kreider. “We moved evacuations every hour last night, and there are large portions of the county that are in alert areas.”
Moments later, he said, “Oh, we just added another zone to the evacuation notice.”
The Pacific Coast Trail Association urged hikers to reach the nearest town, while the U.S. Forest Service closed a 110-mile (177-kilometer) section of the trail from the summit of Mount Etna to Mount Ashland campground in southern Oregon. .
Oregon state representative Dacia Grayber, who is a firefighter, was camping with her husband, also in the fire department, near the California state line, when gale force winds woke them immediately after the midnight.
The sky glowed with lightning in the clouds as ash blew on them, even though they were in Oregon, about 10 miles (about 16 kilometers) away. The intense heat from the fire sent a huge cloud of pyrocumulonimbus, which can produce its own weather system including winds and thunderstorms, Grayber said.
“These were some of the worst winds we’ve ever been in and we’re used to big fires,” she said. “I thought you were going to tear up the tent on the roof of our truck. There.”
On their way out, they ran into hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail fleeing to safety. They offered rides, but a hiker said he would just get a beer, which they gave him, he said.
“The terrifying part for us was the wind speed,” he said. “It went from a fairly cool breezy night to hot, dry hurricane winds. Usually it happens with a fire during the day but not at night. I hope for everyone’s sake, this goes out, but it looks like it will get worse.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Idaho, western Montana, Elmo’s wind-blown fire forced the evacuation of homes and livestock as he ran over grass and timber. The agency estimated it would take nearly a month to contain the fire.
The smoke closed off part of Highway 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo due to thick smoke, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
Crews from several agencies fought the fire on Saturday, including the Confederated Salish and the Kootenai Tribes Fire Division. Six helicopters were crashing into the fire, aided by 22 ground engines.
In Idaho, more than 930 firefighters and wilderness support personnel were fighting the moose fire on Saturday and protecting homes, energy infrastructure and the corridor of Highway 93, an important north-south route.
A red flag warning indicated that the weather could make matters worse with forecasts predicting “dry thunderstorms”, with lightning, wind and no rain.
Meanwhile, crews made significant progress in fighting another major fire in California that forced the evacuation of thousands of people near Yosemite National Park earlier this month. The Oak fire was contained by 52% by Saturday, according to an update on the Cal Fire incident.
As wildfires raged across the West, the U.S. House on Friday passed extensive legislation aimed at helping communities in the region cope with increasingly severe, climate change-fueled fires and droughts that have caused damage to billions of dollars to homes and businesses in recent years.
The legislative measure passed by federal lawmakers on Friday combines 49 separate bills and would increase the pay and benefits of firefighters; promoting resilience and mitigation projects for communities affected by climate change; protect river basins; and make it easier for bushfire victims to get federal assistance.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein sponsored a similar measure.
Boone reported from Boise, Idaho.