Wildfires erupted in California and Montana amid stormy and hot conditions, forcing evacuation orders as they quickly encroached on neighborhoods.
In California’s Klamath National Forest, the fast-moving McKinney fire, which began Friday, went from charring just over a square mile (1 square kilometer) to as much as 62 square miles (160 square kilometers) by Saturday in a rural area to pretty much close. The Oregon State Line, according to fire officials.
The fire burned at least a dozen homes and wildlife was seen fleeing the area to avoid the flames. At least 2,000 people were asked to evacuate.
Meanwhile, in Montana, the Elmo wildfires have nearly tripled in size to more than 11 square miles a few miles from Elmo City. And nearly 200 miles to the south, Idahoans are still under evacuation orders as a moose fire in the Salmon Chalice National Forest charred more than 67.5 square miles of woodland near the town of Salmon. It was 17% contained.
The large accumulation of vegetation led to the McKinney fire, said Tom Stokesbury, a spokesman for the US Forest Service in the area.
“It’s a very dangerous fire, the geography there is very steep and rugged, and this particular area hasn’t burned in a while,” he said.
“It’s continuing to grow with choppy winds and thunderstorms in the area, and we’re in triple-digit temperatures,” said Caroline Quintanilla, a spokeswoman for the Klamath National Forest.
California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Saturday as the fire intensified. The announcement allows Newsom more flexibility to make decisions about emergency response and recovery efforts and to access federal aid. It also allows “firefighting resources from other states to assist California crews in fighting fires,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.
With red flag warnings in place in the area and lightning expected for the next few days, Stokesberry, a US Forest Service spokesperson, said, resources have been brought in from all over California to help fight the area’s fires.
McKinney’s explosive growth has forced crews to shift 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 assisting with evacuations in California’s northernmost Siskiyou County.
Representatives and law enforcement officials were knocking on doors at Yreka County and the town of Fort Jones urging residents to get out and safely evacuate their livestock on trailers. Automated calls were sent to landlines as well due to areas where there was no cell phone service.
More than 100 homes have been ordered to evacuate, and authorities have warned people to be on high alert. Smoke from the fire closed parts of Interstate 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 summit of Etna to the Mount Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.
Oregon State Firefighter Representative Dacia Graeber was camping with her husband, who also works in the fire service, near the California state line when they were woken by strong winds just after midnight.
The sky was glowing with lightning strikes in the clouds, while ash was blasting at them, though they were in Oregon, about 10 miles (about 16 km) away. The intense heat from the fire caused the formation of a huge pyrocumulonimbus cloud, which can produce its own weather system including winds and thunderstorms, Graeber said.
“This was among the worst winds I’ve had in my life and we’re used to big fires,” she said. “I thought it would rip the overhead tent of our truck. We made it out of there.”
On their way out, they come across two hikers on Pacific Coast Highway fleeing to safety.
“The terrifying part for us was the wind speed,” she said. “It went from a fairly cold stormy night to a hot, dry wind with the power of hurricanes.”
In western Montana, wind-driven Elmo fires have forced evacuations of homes and livestock as they race through grass and lumber, according to the Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center. The agency estimated that it would take about a month to contain the fire.
The smoke closed part of Interstate 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo due to thick smoke, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
Crews from several different agencies were battling the blaze on Saturday, including the Salish and Kootenay Confederate Tribes Fire Brigade. Six helicopters fell into the fire with the help of 22 engines on the ground.
In Idaho, more than 930 firefighters and prairie support personnel were battling the moose fire Saturday to protect homes, energy infrastructure and the corridor of Interstate 93, a major north-south route.
A red flag warning indicated that the weather could make matters worse with weather forecasts calling for “dry thunderstorms” with lightning, wind and no rain.
In Hawaii, firefighters and helicopters battle the blazes Saturday night in Maui, near Baia Bay. The Maui County Emergency Management Agency said roads were closed and advised residents and travelers to avoid the area. It is unclear how many acres were burned. A red flag warning is in effect on Sunday.
Meanwhile, crews have made significant progress fighting another major California fire that forced thousands of people to evacuate near Yosemite National Park earlier this month. The oak fire was 52% contained by Saturday, according to the Cal Fire Incident Update. But amid the scorching temperatures, the danger was not entirely gone, with buildings and homes in danger until the fire was completely extinguished.
The fires come as scorching temperatures batter the Pacific Northwest, the West remains dry in a record drought, and severe storms have triggered flash floods in several states. In Kentucky, flash floods have claimed at least 25 lives in what experts describe as one annual rain event in every 1,000 years.