Wildfires in California and Montana exploded in size amid windy, hot conditions, forcing evacuation orders as they quickly encroached on neighborhoods.
In California’s Klamath national forest, the fast-moving McKinney fire, which started Friday, went from charring just over 1 sq mile (1 sq km) to scorching as much as 62 sq miles (160 sqkm) by Saturday in a largely rural area near the Oregon state line, according to fire officials.
The fire burned down at least a dozen residences and wildlife was seen fleeing the area to avoid the flames. At least 2,000 people were told to evacuate.
Meanwhile in Montana, the Elmo wildfire nearly tripled in size to more than 11 sq miles within a few miles of the town of Elmo. And roughly 200 miles to the south, Idaho residents remained under evacuation orders as the Moose fire in the Salmon-Challis national forest charred more than 67.5 sq miles in timbered land near the town of Salmon. It was 17% contained.
A significant build-up of vegetation was fueling the McKinney fire, said Tom Stokesberry, a spokesman with the US Forest Service for the region.
“It’s a very dangerous fire, the geography there is steep and rugged, and this particular area hasn’t burned in a while,” he said.
“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 at Klamath National Forest.
The California governor, Gavin Newsom, declared a state of emergency Saturday as the fire intensified. The proclamation allows Newsom more flexibility to make emergency response and 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.
With red flag warnings into effect for the region and lightning predicted over the next few days, resources from all over California were being brought in to help fight the region’s fires, said Stokesberry, the US Forest Service spokesman.
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 onto trailers. Automated calls were being sent to land phone lines as well because there were areas without cell phone service.
Over 100 homes were ordered 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 110-mile section of the trail from the Etna Summit to the Mt Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.
Oregon state representative Dacia Grayber, who is a firefighter, was camping with her husband, who is also in the fire service, near the California state line when gale-force winds awoke 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 10 miles (about 16 km) away. Intense heat from the fire had sent up a massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud, which can produce its own weather system including winds and thunderstorms, 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 top tent off of our truck. We got the hell out of there.”
On their way out, they came across hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail fleeing to safety.
“The terrifying part for us was the wind velocity,” she said. “It went from a fairly cool breezy night to hot, dry hurricane-force winds.”
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 Center, 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 wildland firefighters and support staff were battling the Moose fire 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 calling for “dry thunderstorms,” with lightning, wind and no rain.
In Hawaii, fire crews and helicopters have been fighting flames Saturday evening on Maui near Paia Bay. The Maui county emergency management agency said roads have been closed and have advised residents and travelers to avoid the area. It is unclear how many acres have burned. A red flag warning is in effect Sunday.
Meanwhile, crews made significant progress in battling another major blaze in California that forced evacuations of thousands of people near Yosemite national park earlier this month. The Oak fire was 52% contained by Saturday, according to a Cal Fire incident update. But amid scorching temperatures the danger wasn’t entirely over, with structures and homes at risk until the blaze has been completely extinguished.
The fires come as scorching temperatures bake the Pacific north-west, the west remains patched in record drought, and severe storms sent flash floods surging across several states. In Kentucky, flash floods have claimed the lives of at least 25 people in what experts have called a 1-in-1,000 year rain event.