Wildfires in California and Montana worsened dramatically overnight amid windy, hot conditions and were quickly encroaching on neighbourhoods, forcing evacuation orders for more than 100 homes on Saturday, while a blaze in Idaho was spreading.
In California’s Klamath National Forest, the fast moving McKinney fire, which started on Friday, went from charring just over 1 square kilometre to scorching as much as 160 square kilometres by Saturday in a largely rural area near the Oregon state line, according to fire officials. The fire burnt down at least a dozen residences and wildlife was seen fleeing the area to avoid the flames.
“It’s continuing to grow with erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area and we’re in triple digit temperatures,” said Caroline Quintanilla, a spokeswoman for Klamath National Forest.
California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Saturday as the fire intensified. The proclamation allows more flexibility to make recovery effort decisions and access federal aid.
It also allows “firefighting resources from other states to assist California crews in battling the fires,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.
Elmo wildfire triples in size
Meanwhile, in Montana, the Elmo wildfire nearly tripled in size to more than 28 square kilometres and was only a few kilometres from the town of Elmo. Roughly 320km to the south, Idaho residents remained under evacuation orders as the Moose Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest charred more than 174.8 square kilometres in timbered land near the town of Salmon. It was 17 per cent contained.
A significant build-up of vegetation was fuelling the McKinney fire, said Tom Stokesberry, a spokesman for the US Forest Service.
“It’s a very dangerous fire — the geography there is steep and rugged, and this particular area hasn’t burnt in a while.”
He also said a small fire was burning nearby, outside the town of Seiad, and that with lightning predicted over the next few days, resources from all over California were being brought in to help fight the region’s fires.
McKinney’s explosive growth forced crews to shift from trying to control the perimeter of the blaze to trying to protect homes and critical infrastructure like water tanks and power lines, and assist in evacuations in California’s northernmost county of Siskiyou.
Deputies and law enforcement were knocking on doors in the county seat of Yreka and the town of Fort Jones to urge residents to get out and safely evacuate their livestock on to trailers. Automated calls were being sent to land phone lines as well, because there were areas without cell phone service.
More than 100 homes were ordered to be evacuated and authorities were warning people to be on high alert. Smoke from the fire caused the closure of portions of Highway 96.
The Pacific Coast Trail Association urged hikers to get to the nearest town while the US Forest Service closed a 177km section of the trail from the Etna Summit to the Mt. Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.
Oregon state congresswoman Dacia Grayber, who is also a fireman, was camping with her husband near the California state line when gale-force winds woke them just after midnight.
The sky was glowing with strikes of lightening in the clouds, while ash was blowing at them, though they were in Oregon, about 16km away. Intense heat from the fire had sent up a massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud, which can produce its own weather system including winds and thunderstorms, Ms Grayber said.
“These were some of the worst winds I’ve ever been in and we’re used to big fires,” she said. “I thought it was going to rip the roof off of our truck. We got the heck out of there.”
On their way out, they came across hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail fleeing to safety.
In western Montana, the wind-driven Elmo fire forced evacuations of homes and livestock as it raced across grass and timber, according to The National Interagency Fire Centre, based in Idaho. The agency estimated it would take nearly a month to contain the blaze.
Smoke shut down a portion of Highway 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo because of the thick smoke, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
Crews from several different agencies were fighting the fire on Saturday, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Fire Division. Six helicopters were making drops on the fire, aided by 22 engines on the ground.
In Idaho, more than 930 wild-land firefighters and support staff were battling the Moose fire on Saturday and protecting homes, energy infrastructure and the Highway 93 corridor, a major north-south route.
A red flag warning indicated that the weather could make things worse with the forecast for “dry thunderstorms,” with lightning, wind and no rain.
Hawaii fights flames
In Hawaii, fire crews and helicopters were fighting flames on Saturday evening in Maui near Paia Bay. The Maui County Emergency Management Agency said roads have been closed and they have advised residents and travellers to avoid the area. It is unknown how many acres have burnt. A red flag warning is in effect on Sunday.
Meanwhile, crews made significant progress in battling another major blaze in California that forced the evacuations of thousands of people near Yosemite National Park earlier this month. The Oak fire was 52 per cent contained by Saturday, according to a Cal Fire incident update.
As fires raged across the West, the US House on Friday approved wide-ranging legislation aimed at helping communities in the region cope with increasingly severe wildfires and drought — fuelled by climate change — that have caused billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses in recent years.
The legislative measure approved by federal legislators on Friday combines 49 separate bills and would increase fireman pay and benefits; boost resiliency and mitigation projects for communities affected by climate change; protect watersheds; and make it easier for wildfire victims to get federal assistance.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has sponsored a similar measure.