Two bodies were found inside a burnt-out car in the path of a huge northern California forest fire raging near the Oregon border, authorities said on Monday as crews battling the flames for a fourth day took advantage of rainfall sweeping the area.
Since it broke out on Friday, the fast-moving McKinney Fire has forced some 2,000 residents to flee while destroying homes and critical infrastructure, mostly in Siskiyou County, home to the Klamath National Forest, according to a statement from Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday.
Authorities have yet to quantify the extent of property losses, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in an update posted on Monday that more than 4,500 structures were threatened by flames.
The U.S. Forest Service shut down a 177-kilometre section of the famed Pacific Crest Trail in Northern California and southern Oregon, and dozens of hikers in that area were urged to abandon their treks and head to the nearest towns.
Smaller wildfires prompt 200 to flee homes
Already the largest blaze in California this year, the fire has charred 22,457 hectares of drought-stressed timber and remained at zero per cent containment, Cal Fire reported.
In the same county, two smaller wildfires that scorched more than 690 hectares combined as of Sunday and chased at least 200 residents from their homes, Cal Fire said.
The two bodies were found on Sunday in a car parked in a residential driveway west of the community of Klamath River, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on Monday. It said it would have no additional information about the deaths pending identification and notification of next of kin.
More than two decades of drought and rising temperatures, exacerbated by climate change, have made California more vulnerable than ever to wildfires. The two most devastating years on record were in 2020 and 2021 based on the number of hectares burned.
Firefighting crews were taking advantage of a low-pressure weather system that brought rain to the northern and eastern flanks of the fire zone on Sunday evening and continued to douse the region on Monday, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Adrienne Freeman said.
But the same weather system also brings the potential for thunderstorms, and with it erratic winds and lightning strikes.
“The one thing we’ve learned about thunderstorms is we can’t predict what’s going to happen,” Freeman said. “So our crews are out early. They’re building containment lines actively on the edge of the fire, and they will continue to do that for as long as we can and hope that the conditions we’re seeing now hold.”
A layer of heavy smoke trapped close to the ground by low pressure, a phenomenon called an “inversion layer,” also has helped to tamp down fire growth since Sunday evening, though reduced visibility also limited efforts to deploy aircraft to fight the blaze, according to the Forest Service.
‘A beautiful place … absolutely destroyed’
Valerie Linfoot’s son, a fire dispatcher, called to tell her their family home of three decades in Klamath River had burned.
Linfoot said her husband worked as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter for years and the family did everything they could to prepare their house for a wildfire — including installing a metal roof and trimming trees and tall grasses around the property.
“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 told the Bay Area News Group. She said her neighbours have also lost homes.
“It’s a beautiful place. And from what I’ve seen, it’s just decimated. It’s absolutely destroyed,” she told the news group.
Heavy smoke above the fire region helped limit the growth of the McKinney Fire on Sunday, but also grounded aircraft used to fight the blaze, the U.S. Forest Service said in its statement.
Newsom declared a state of emergency for Siskiyou County on Sunday. The declaration will help residents gain access to federal aid and unlock state resources.
One of those forced to evacuate was Harlene Althea Schwander, 81, an artist who moved to the area only a month ago to be near her son and daughter-in-law.
“I’m very sad. My house is gone, all my furniture, all clothes, shoes, coats, boots. Everything is gone,” Schwander told Reuters on Sunday outside an American Red Cross evacuation shelter in the town of Weed, about 60 kilometres south of the McKinney Fire.
It is the second major wildfire to erupt in California this season. The Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park was 67 per cent contained after it charred more than 7,787 hectares, Cal Fire said on its website.