(LOS ANGELES) — A fire burning out of control in a Northern California national forest and threatening a town of nearly 8,000 people has quickly become the largest wildfire in the state this year, officials said.
The McKinney Fire in the Klamath National Forest in Siskiyou County, near the Oregon border, had burned 57,519 acres and was 10% contained as of Wednesday night, according to Cal Fire.
Rain in the area on Tuesday presented firefighters with opportunities to properly combat the fire, officials said. However, the fire is expected to grow in the next few days due to drier and hotter weather. The forecast was for temperatures to reach 96 on Wednesday.
Red flag warnings were in effect as well.
The blaze grew by nearly 3,000 acres overnight on Monday as gusty winds helped fan its spread through a drought-dry tinderbox of high grass, brush and timber, according to Cal Fire.
Two people were found dead in their car in a driveway in the town of Klamath River, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue told ABC News. Firefighters said they suspected that the two were caught in the fast-moving fire as they tried to flee, according to the sheriff. More rescue teams were expected to search the area on Monday.
The fire started around 2:15 p.m. Friday and has caused the closure of Highway 96 in the area and the evacuation of several communities, including the partial evacuation of Yreka, California, officials said.
There was concern that lightning storms over the fire area could have sparked additional fires, officials said. But that same storm system also carried a significant amount of moisture, slowing the fire’s spread significantly over the past 24 hours, the sheriff said on Monday.
“We’re feeling pretty good” about protecting Yreka, whose western fringes were threatened by the fire, he told ABC News.
The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office told ABC News Sunday afternoon that more than 100 structures have been destroyed, including the homes of several deputies who are continuing to work despite personally being under evacuation orders.
Many of the lost structures are along the Klamath River, which runs parallel to Highway 96, according to a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. The Klamath River Community Hall in Klamath River was also among the structures destroyed, officials said.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said search crews rescued about 60 hikers from a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, a popular backpacking trail that runs from Canada to Mexico.
Sgt. Shawn Richards of Jackson County Search and Rescue told reporters the hikers were not in immediate danger. He said that because of the rapidly spreading fire, unpredictable winds and smoke reducing visibility to roughly 20 feet, the decision was made to rescue the hikers before conditions worsened.
More than 1,300 firefighters are battling the blaze on the ground and from the air with 10 helicopters and 16 air tankers, Cal Fire said Monday.
“Really erratic winds from the start of the incident all the way up until now,” Kelsey Lofdah, a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, told San Francisco ABC station KGO of challenging firefighting conditions. “Pretty extreme fire behavior throughout the entire shift.”
The Yreka Police Department issued evacuation orders for a neighborhood in the western part of the town “due to its proximity to the fire” about 12 miles away.
“Please leave IMMEDIATELY,” the police department wrote in the evacuation order.
The police department also issued evacuation warnings to residents in all areas of the community west of Interstate 5.
The cause of the fire is under investigation and emergency management officials are assessing the damage.
Californian Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency on Saturday for Siskiyou County due to the effects of the McKinney Fire. A state of emergency frees up more state resources to be used in battling the blaze, including dispatching more firefighters and equipment to the scene.
The McKinney Fire surpassed the Oak Fire in Mariposa County near Yosemite as the largest wildfire in the state this year, according to Cal Fire. The Oak Fire, which started on July 22, was 72% contained on Monday after burning 19,244 acres and destroying 182 structures, including more than 100 homes, officials said.
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