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“It’s just decimated”: McKinney Fire explodes along California-Oregon border into state’s largest fire of 2022

Mercury News 8/1/2022 Jakob Rodgers, Bay Area News Group

Supercharged by gusty thunderstorms and drought-ravaged trees, the McKinney Fire exploded over the weekend into California’s largest fire of 2022 — wiping out houses, sending 1,300 people fleeing for safety and forcing dozens of hikers to be rescued from the Pacific Crest Trail near the California-Oregon border.

The blaze charred more than 51,000 acres as of Sunday morning and remained 0% contained as it barreled out of control through the Klamath National Forest — a remote enclave northwest of Mt. Shasta that’s renowned for its fishing, white-water kayaking and rafting. And with scores of lightning strikes — some originating from its own billowing smoke plume — hitting around the central conflagration this weekend, firefighters warned thousands more to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

At least 400 structures remained threatened by the blaze Sunday, which needed less than 48 hours to swell to twice the size of any other fire so far this year in California. But while temperatures eased slightly on Sunday, firefighters girded for another potential round of thunderstorms Monday.

“Our concern with the city is just the escalation, with how quickly this came to pass,” Jason Ledbetter, Yreka’s city manager, said.

The fire upended a part of Northern California renowned for hunting and hiking, while forcing the western half of the old mining town of Yreka to evacuate. To the west and north, 63 hikers trekking between Mexico and Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail were rescued by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office after the flames shut down a 110-mile stretch of the popular trail.

Meanwhile, firefighters worked to save houses lining Highway 96, while laying in dozer lines to protect the small communities of Yreka and Fort Jones to the east and south of the blaze. Some parts of the fire — particularly to the east — were so smoky that planes and helicopters had trouble dropping water or fire retardant.

The fire left yet another community in Northern California in grief as word trickled out of houses destroyed in the conflagration — particularly around the remote community of of Klamath River.

Valerie Linfoot, 55, learned from her son – a fire dispatcher – that their house of 32 years in Klamath River had burned to the ground. It marked a cruel irony for the Linfoots, a family of firefighters who have spent decades working to keep fires at bay in Northern California. Her husband worked as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter for decades, and her children and relatives also have worked as firefighters at various points in their lives.

They did everything they could to prepare their house for this day — installing a metal roof, cutting tall grasses and “limbing up” trees to reduce the wildfire risk to their home.

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“It was as safe as we could make it, and it was just so dry and so hot and the fire was going so fast,” Linfoot said. “My husband, he’s speechlessly devastated, because he spent 32 years trying to protect that forest.”

Her husband had only 10 minutes to flee — only enough time to attach the family’s camping trailer to their truck and speed away. Several of her neighbors are former firefighters, too, she said.

“None of the people are wealthy people, so losing their homes that they worked their lives for, it’s a huge impact for all of my neighbors,” Linfoot said. “And it’s just – it’s a beautiful place. And from what I’ve seen, it’s just decimated. It’s absolutely destroyed.

The fire ignited Friday afternoon near Highway 96 and McKinney Creed Road, southwest of the Klamath River, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency in Siskiyou County. The flames raged unlike anything seen in California this year — sending a pyrocumulous cloud soaring as high as 50,000 feet into the air, meteorologists said. The blaze quickly eclipsed the size of the state’s next-largest blaze, the Oak Fire, which has burned 19,244 acres and destroyed 182 structures west of Yosemite National Park.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. The area has been hit by a series of thunderstorms in recent days that sparked several other nearby blazes in the Klamath National Forest, including the 500-acre China 2 Fire.

On Friday, 105 lightning cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were recorded in Siskiyou County, followed by another 84 on Saturday, according to Ken Sargeant, a National Weather Service meteorologist. Such bolts of electricity can ignite trees or dense undergrowth along the forest floor and smolder for days before exploding with little warning into the treetops.

It all came after the area became trapped in a record-setting heat wave that sent temperatures soaring into the triple digits, further baking a landscape already suffering from extreme drought. In nearby Montague, temperatures have been at or above 96 degrees since July 11, said Marc Spilde, a National Weather Service meteorologist. And from Wednesday to Saturday, temperatures reached or exceeded 110 degrees — breaking or tying records three times.

Meanwhile, it’s been perilously dry. Yreka received only about half of the 11.16 inches of precipitation it normally can get by the end of July. Some parts of the burn area even received .3 inches of rain on Saturday, though it appears to have done little to help slow the fire’s spread, said Adrienne Freeman, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

“That’s a strong indication of just how dry these fuels are,” Freeman said. “Throughout California, we should be prepared this year for a long and severe fire season.”

Even as the flames raged less than 10 miles from Yreka, some people vowed to hold their ground and ignore orders to evacuate.

After helping scores of residents — including a 97-year-old World War II veteran — evacuate the Oak Ridge Mobile Estates in Yreka, Jeff McCauley, the mobile home park’s manager, prepared to hold out as long as possible. He voiced fears of looters visiting the park, and said he wanted to try to help douse any embers that may land on the homes there.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Jeff McCauley, manager of the Oak Ridge Mobile Estates. “Somebody’s got to watch the place. I can’t just let it sit wide open.”

“I’m just thanking our lucky stars that we didn’t get the flames coming here yet,” McCauley added. “If the wind changes, it could be a whole different story. And then we’d be in for a fight.”

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