When ash began to fall and his throat burned with smoke, Franklin Thom decided it was time to leave the town where he grew up on the edge of the national forest in California.
On Monday, he was living in a shelter with only his medicine, some clothes, his shower shoes, his daughter and word that unlike others, he had escaped California’s biggest wildfire of the year with his home still standing. .
“Keep your prayers for us,” said 55-year-old Tom.
At least two people have died and more than 100 homes, sheds and other buildings have burned in the McKinney wildfire since it broke out last Friday, and the blaze remains out of control, authorities said.
Two bodies were found inside a charred vehicle Sunday in the driveway of a home near the remote Klamath River community, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. Other details were not immediately released.
The fire in Northern California near the state line with Oregon has exploded in size to nearly 87 square miles (225 square kilometers) after starting in the Klamath National Forest. It was one of several wildfires raging across the western US, threatening thousands of homes.
In northwestern Montana, a wildfire that started Friday afternoon near the town of Elmo on the Flathead Indian Reservation has burned 20 square miles (52 square kilometers), fire officials said. Some people were forced to flee their homes as gusty afternoon winds drove the fire to the east.
The California wildfire started small but exploded over the weekend as storm cells brought winds that reached 50 mph (80 km/h) at times.
Clouds and good rain helped firefighters Sunday and Monday night. Bulldozers have been able to ring the town of Yreka (Wye-REE’-kuh) with wildfires, while crews cutting fire lines through steep and rugged terrain are also making progress, fire officials said.
The fire was contained about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) from Yreka, a quaint town of about 7,500 people.
“We have the weather,” said Todd Mack, fire incident commander with the U.S. Forest Service. “We have the horsepower. And we succeed.”
But the weather was a mixed blessing. Lightning over the weekend also sparked several smaller fires near the McKinney Fire. And despite the much-needed moisture, forests and fields in the region remained dry.
Yreka could see a high temperature of nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) Tuesday, and the National Weather Service issued a red flag for extreme fire danger Tuesday night because of the potential for lightning to start new fires and gusty winds from thunderstorms fueling the flames.
Among those waiting for the fire at the shelter Monday was Paisley Bamberg, 33. She arrived in Yreka a few months ago from West Columbia, South Carolina.
She was staying in a motel with her six children, ages 15 to one-year-old twins, when she was told to move out.
“I started throwing everything on the top of my truck,” but I had to leave a lot of stuff behind, he said.
Bamberg said she had just been hired at an Arby’s restaurant and wondered if she would survive the fire.
“There may not be much when we get back,” he said. “I don’t know if I have a job. The children had to start school and I don’t know if the school is still standing.”
“I’m trying to keep my spirits up. I have six little people who depend on me,” he said. “I cannot break or falter.”
About 2,500 people were ordered to evacuate, but Thom said he knew many people remained in Yreka.
“There are still a lot of people in the city, people who refused to leave,” he said. “A lot of people who don’t have vehicles and can’t go. It’s really sad.”
Thom has lived in Yreka all his life, but this was the first time he was threatened by a wildfire.
“I never thought it would ever happen,” he said. “I thought, ‘We’re invincible.’ … That makes me a liar.”
Elsewhere, the Idaho fire has burned more than 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) in the Salmon-Challis National Forest while threatening homes, mining operations and fisheries near the town of Salmon. It was 23% contained on Monday.
And a wildfire raging in northwest Nebraska prompted evacuations and damaged or destroyed several homes near the small town of Gering. The Carter Canyon Fire started Saturday as two separate fires that joined. It was about 30% contained by early Monday morning.
Scientists said climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
The US Forest Service has closed a 110-mile (177-kilometer) section of the famed Pacific Crest Trail in northern California and southern Oregon. Sixty hikers in that area were helped away Saturday, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon, which assisted in the effort.
Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporters Amy Hanson in Helena, Montana. Margery Beck in Omaha, Nebraska. and Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.