Wildfires in West explode in size amid warm, windy conditions

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Wildfires in California and Montana exploded overnight amid windy, hot conditions and quickly invaded neighborhoods, forcing more than 100 homes to be evacuated on Saturday as a fire spread in Idaho.

In California’s Klamath National Forest, the fast-moving McKinney fire, which started Friday, went from a char of just over 1 square mile (1 square kilometer) on Saturday to 160 square kilometers in a largely rural area. near the Oregon state line, according to fire officials.

“It continues to grow with erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area and we are in triple-digit temperatures,” said Caroline Quintanilla, a spokeswoman for Klamath National Forest.

Meanwhile, the Elmo wildfire in Montana nearly tripled in size to more than 11 square miles (about 28 square kilometers) within a few miles of the town of Elmo. About 200 miles (320 kilometers) south, Idaho residents remained under evacuation orders when the Moose Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest charred more than 174.8 square miles of forested land near the city of Salmon. It was 17% enclosed.

Significant buildup of vegetation fueled the McKinney fire, said Tom Stokesberry, a US Forest Service spokesman for the region.

“It’s a very dangerous fire — the geography there is steep and rugged, and this particular area hasn’t been burned for a while,” he said.

A small fire was also burning nearby, outside the town of Seiad, Stokesberry said. With the lightning predicted in the coming days, resources were brought in from all over California to help fight the region’s fires, he said.

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McKinney’s explosive growth forced crews to switch from trying to control the perimeter of the fire to trying to protect homes and critical infrastructure such as water tanks and power lines, and assist with evacuations in California’s northernmost county of Siskiyou. .

Deputies and law enforcement officers knocked on doors in the county seat of Yreka and the city of Fort Jones to urge residents to step outside and evacuate their livestock safely on trailers. Automated calls were also sent to landlines because there were areas without cell phone service.

More than 100 homes were evacuated and authorities warned people to be very vigilant. Smoke from the fire caused the closure of parts of Highway 96.

“We’re asking residents of the entire area to be ready,” said Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Courtney Kreider. “Last night we conducted evacuations about every hour, and there are large parts of the province that are in warning zones.”

Moments later, she said, “Oh – we just added another zone to the evacuation alert.”

The Pacific Coast Trail Association urged hikers to head to the nearest town, while the US Forest Service closed off a 177-kilometer stretch of the trail from Mount Etna to Mount Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.

Oregon State Representative Dacia Grayber, who is a firefighter, was camping with her husband, who is also a firefighter, near the California state line when gale-force winds woke them up just after midnight.

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The sky glowed with lightning strikes in the clouds, as ash blew at them, even though they were in Oregon, about 10 miles (about 16 kilometers) away. Intense heat from the fire had sent up a massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud, which can produce its own weather system, including wind 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 would tear the roof tent off our truck. There.”

On their way out, they encountered hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail who fled to safety. They offered rides, but one hiker said he would just have a beer, which they gave him, she said.

“The terrifying part for us was the wind speed,” she said. “It went from a pretty cool, breezy night to hot, dry, hurricane-force winds. Usually that happens with a fire during the day, but not at night. I hope for the sake of everyone, this will pass, but it looks like it’s going to get worse.”

In western Montana, the wind-driven Elmo fire forced evacuations of homes and livestock as it swept across grass and woods, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Idaho. The agency estimated it would take nearly a month to contain the fire.

Smoke closed off a section of Highway 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo because of the thick smoke, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.

Crews from several agencies were busy extinguishing the blaze on Saturday, including the Confederated Salish Fire Department and Kootenai Tribes. Six helicopters made drops on the fire, aided by 22 engines on the ground.

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In Idaho, more than 930 wildfirefighters and support personnel fought the Moose fire on Saturday, protecting homes, energy infrastructure and the Highway 93 corridor, a major north-south route.

A red flag warning indicated that the weather could make matters worse with the “dry thunderstorm” forecast, with lightning, wind and no rain.

Meanwhile, crews made significant progress fighting another major fire in California that forced the evacuation of thousands of people near Yosemite National Park earlier this month. The Oak fire was 52% under control on Saturday, according to an update to the Cal Fire incident.

As fires raged across the West, the US House on Friday passed broad legislation designed to help communities in the region cope with increasingly severe wildfires and droughts — fueled by climate change — that have caused billions of dollars in damage to homes. and companies in recent years.

The legislative measure passed by federal lawmakers Friday combines 49 separate bills and would increase firefighters’ wages and benefits; promoting resilience and mitigation projects for communities affected by climate change; protect watersheds; and make it easier for wildfire victims to get federal aid.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where California Democratic Senate Dianne Feinstein has sponsored a similar measure.

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Boone reported from Boise, Idaho.

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