The blaze, dubbed the McKinney Fire, erupted Friday afternoon in the Klamath National Forest near the California-Oregon border and has since ravaged more than 52,000 acres, advancing on homes and forcing nearly 2 000 inhabitants to evacuate on Saturday, the authorities announced.
Thick smoke above the blaze helped slow its growth on Sunday, but also kept firefighting planes grounded, the US Forest Service said in a Sunday evening update.
By the end of the weekend, the blaze was 0% contained and firefighters face a long battle ahead as lightning and thunderstorms complicate efforts as flames cut through dry vegetation.
Oregon State Rep. Dacia Grayber was camping with her husband, both firefighters, near the California state line when they woke up to orange skies, hot gusty winds, lightning and blown ash. said on Twitter
. They evacuated the campground knowing that one of them might return on deployment if the fire got worse.
“In over 22 years of fire, I have never experienced anything like this fire behavior at night. It was absolutely surreal and not just a bit apocalyptic,” Grayber tweeted
The area remained under a red flag warning as a threat of dry lightning, strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity created dangerous fire conditions through Sunday evening. “Heavy lightning” is expected through Monday, along with scattered thunderstorms that could potentially spread the flames further, according to the National Weather Service.
“These conditions can be extremely dangerous for firefighters because winds can be erratic and extremely strong, causing the fire to spread in any direction,” Forest Service officials said in a news release.
The dry thunderstorms that occurred over the weekend occur when precipitation evaporates before it even hits the ground, leaving only lightning strikes capable of starting new fires and fueling existing ones, said CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford.
At an estimated 52,498 acres, the McKinney Fire has become California’s largest blaze so far this year, Cal Fire Captain Chris Bruno told CNN.
And that’s not the only fire crews have to deal with. There were 10 different wildfires in Klamath National Forest on Sunday afternoon, forestry officials said.
The fires generated their own weather in the form of pyrocumulus clouds, which are created from the intense heat of the fire forcing air to rise.
Tor Mason was one of hundreds evacuated due to the McKinney Fire. He said he and his friends had fled their homes and arrived at the Klamath River Community Center, only to find the fire getting closer, he told CNN affiliate KDRV.
“When I got to the community center, it was almost on fire. I’m like, fuck, this isn’t good,” Mason said. “So I put the… pedal to the metal and danced. … I heard this morning he was on fire.”
California’s persistent drought conditions have set the stage for a rapid spread of fires in the forest, with fires burning extremely dry and receptive fuels, according to the forest service.
Running through dry brush, grass and woods, fire activity was extreme, with flames rising and scouting further, firefighters said.
“The Klamath National Forest is a big, beautiful forest, but it also has steep, rugged terrain. And with that, coupled with the high temperatures and low humidity, they all come into play and make it a dangerous situation for everyone. ‘very extreme fire right now.” Tom Stokesberry of the US Forest Service told CNN affiliate KTVL.
A total of 648 firefighters converged on the blaze, attacking the flames from the ground and air and working to defend evacuated homes.
Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Siskiyou County on Saturday, saying the fire had destroyed homes and threatened critical infrastructure. Cal Fire said no information was available on structures damaged by the McKinney fire, although Stokesberry told KTVL there were unconfirmed reports of lost structures.
About 60 people were evacuated from the Pacific Crest Trail on Saturday as the McKinney Fire approached, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon said on its Facebook page, noting that hikers were rescued from the “California side of the Red Buttes Wilderness”.
Conditions could improve on Monday as the risk of isolated dry thunderstorms moves north, Shackelford said. There’s also a chance of up to 2 inches of rain falling on the area, which could help firefighters battle the McKinney Fire.
CNN’s Paradise Afshar, Tina Burnside, Amanda Jackson, Robert Shackelford and Claire Colbert contributed to this report.