Firefighters have made their first take on California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire of the year and expected the blaze to remain contained through the weekend.
The McKinney Fire near the Oregon border was 10 percent contained as of Wednesday night, and bulldozers and hand crews were making progress digging out fires around most of the rest of the blaze, fire officials said at a community meeting.
The southeast corner of the fire above the Siskiyou County seat of Yreka, which has about 7,800 residents, has been contained. Evacuation orders for parts of the city and Hawkinsville were downgraded to warnings, allowing people to return to their homes but with a warning that the situation remained dangerous.
About 1,300 residents remained under evacuation orders, officials said.
The fire did not advance Wednesday, after several days of brief but heavy rain from storms that produced clouds and moisture.
“This is a sleeping giant right now,” said Daryl Laws, a unified incident commander at the fire.
Additionally, firefighters expected Thursday to fully surround a 1,000-acre (404-hectare) fire on the north end of the McKinney fire.
The fire broke out last Friday and has charred nearly 90 square miles (233 square kilometers) of forestland, which has been left parched by the drought. More than 100 houses and other buildings have been burned and four bodies have been found, including two in a burned-out car on a street.
The fire was initially fueled by strong winds ahead of a storm cell. More storms earlier this week proved to be a mixed blessing. A torrential rain on Tuesday dropped as much as 3 inches (7.6 cm) on some eastern parts of the fire, but most of the fire had almost nothing, said Dennis Burns, fire behavior analyst.
The latest storm also raised concerns about possible river flooding and mudslides. A private contractor in a truck helping the firefighting effort was injured when a bridge gave way and swept the vehicle, Kreider said. The contractor had non-life-threatening injuries, he said.
However, there was no weather forecast for the next three or four days that could give the fire “legs,” Burns said.
The good news came too late for many people in the quaint Klamath River hamlet, home to about 200 people before the fire burned many of the homes, along with the post office, community center and other buildings.
At an evacuation center Wednesday, Bill Sims said three of the four victims were his neighbors. Two was a married couple who lived on the street.
“I’m not sentimental about things and material things,” Simms said. “But when you hear that my next-door neighbors died … that gets a little emotional.”
Their names have not been officially confirmed, which could take several days, said Courtney Kreider, spokeswoman for the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office.
Simms, a 65-year-old retiree, bought his property six years ago as a second home with access to hunting and fishing. He returned to check on his property on Tuesday and found it had been destroyed.
“The house, guest house and RV were gone. It’s just desolation, devastation,” Simms said. He found the body of one of his two cats, which he buried. The other cat is still missing. He was able to take his two dogs to the shelter with him.
82-year-old Harlene Schwander lost the home she had just moved into a month ago to be closer to her son and daughter-in-law. Their house survived, but her house burned down.
Schwander, an artist, said she only managed to take a few family photos and some jewelry before the evacuation. Everything else – including her art collection – went up in flames.
“I’m sad. Everyone says it was simple stuff, but it was all I had,” he said.
California and much of the rest of the West is in a drought and the risk of wildfires is high, with the worst fire season on record yet to come. Wildfires are burning in Montana, Idaho and Nebraska and have destroyed homes and threatened communities.
Scientists say 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. California has seen the largest, most destructive and deadliest wildfires in the last five years. In 2018, a massive wildfire in the Sierra Nevada foothills destroyed much of the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, the most deaths from a US wildfire in a century.
In northwestern Montana, a wildfire that destroyed at least four homes and forced the evacuation of about 150 homes west of Flathead Lake continued to be pushed north by winds Wednesday, fire officials said.
Crews had to pull lines Wednesday afternoon due to increased fire activity, public information officer Sara Rouse told NBC Montana.
There were concerns the fire could reach Lake Mary Ronan by Wednesday afternoon, officials said.
The fire, which started July 29 in grass on the Flathead Indian Reservation, quickly moved into timber and charred nearly 76 square miles.
Idaho’s Moose 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.
And a wildfire 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.
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.