It has become a way of life for people living in northern California. Every summer, wildfires engulf huge tracts of forestland, destroy homes and sometimes end lives.
As of this writing, the McKinney Fire has spread to more than 60,000 acres in and around the Klamath National Forest near the California-Oregon border. The fire has claimed at least four lives and 185 structures including homes.
It’s the largest wildfire in the Golden State this year so far, and there were fears it would grow even larger and more deadly. Especially due to rising temperatures and decreasing humidity levels.
Many families barely escaped with their lives, outrunning the flames. But when they returned, their homes were gone. So far, more than 2,000 people have been forced to evacuate the area.
The Losses Keep Mounting
One 32-year-old Klamath River resident evacuated her home with two children just in time after grabbing a few personal belongings. “I could hear the crackling, and I could hear trees falling and I could hear the fire,” she said. “The ash and embers (were) going in my eyes.
“Devastating. There’s no word that I can use to describe it except for devastating. I lost pretty much everything I owned.”
Another couple in the town lost much of their ranch, including barns and animals. The ranch had been in the family since 1954.
A 28-year-old man who had lost his mother in a fire when he was age 6 got out of his home before the fire destroyed it. “It’s just that same emptiness that I felt as a kid, really,” he said. “It doesn’t feel real.”
The mother of another family said of her home, “There’s nothing left. It’s completely burned down to the dirt. It’s just completely gone. It’s hard to convey to somebody what it’s like to know that you have nothing.” Her husband added, “We don’t even have an address anymore.”
Governor Declares State of Emergency
While firefighters welcome any rain they can get, thunderstorms sometimes make the situation even worse. That’s because lightning strikes are capable of sparking new fires and fueling existing ones. And sometimes the rain evaporates before it hits the ground, so it’s no help.
A U.S. Forest Service spokesperson said, “The fuel beds are so dry, and they can just erupt from that lightning. These thunder cells come with gusty, erratic winds that can blow fire in every direction.”
Just two days after starting in a largely unpopulated area of Siskiyou County, the McKinney Fire grew in size to 80 square miles. With the blaze reaching homes and threatening crucial infrastructure, California Governor Gavin Newsome declared a state of emergency.
Cellphone service was out in some areas, so automated calls were made to landlines urging evacuation. A 110-mile section of a trail from the Etna Summit to the Mt. Ashland Campground in southern Oregon was closed.
Red Flag Warnings in 7 States
Across the border in Oregon, two firefighters who were camping saw the orange skies and knew it was time to leave the area. They also knew they’d be coming back if deployed to fight the fire.
One of them was Oregon state representative Dacia Grayber and the other was her husband.
She tweeted, “In 22+ years of fire I’ve never experienced anything like this fire behavior at night. It felt absolutely surreal and not just a little apocalyptic.”
More than 2 million people were under red flag warnings, and not just in California and Oregon. The warnings extended to eastern Washington, Montana, eastern Wyoming, western South Dakota and northwestern Nebraska.
Drought, Rough Terrain Add to Challenge
The combination of historic drought conditions and rough terrain made fighting the McKinney Fire a big challenge.
Fire officials say the dry brush, grass and timber fed the fire and allowed flames to run uphill.
Tom Stokesberry is with the U.S. Forest Service. Here’s what he told CNN affiliate KTVL. “Klamath National Forest is a big and beautiful forest, but it also has some steep and rugged terrain.
“And with that, coupled with the high temperatures, low humidity, they all come into play and make it a very extreme fire danger right now.”
Fires Create Own Weather System
Technically, a wildfire is not a weather condition like rain, snow, wind, etc.
But when wildfires become large and intense enough, they can generate their own weather in the form of pyrocumulus clouds. The clouds form when heat from the fire forces air to rise.
Also called flammagenitus clouds, they’re similar to firestorms, which can create and sustain their own wind system. These clouds are often gray to brown in color due to ash and smoke.
They can trigger a thunderstorm, and the lightning can make a fire worse or start an additional fire. And even when there is no lightning, increased winds from the clouds can make battling fires even more difficult.
If you live in an area prone to wildfires, I hope you’ll take every precaution possible to avoid getting caught unaware. Including making sure you have advance warning to evacuate and much-needed supplies if you hunker down.