By Nathan Frandino
YREKA, Calif. – Two bodies were found inside a burned-out car on the path of a huge northern California forest fire raging near the Oregon border, authorities said on Monday, as crews battling the blaze for a fourth day took advantage of rainfall in the area.
Since erupting on Friday, the fast-moving McKinney Fire has forced some 2,000 residents to flee while destroying homes and critical infrastructure, mostly in Siskiyou County, home to the Klamath National Forest, according to a statement from Governor Gavin Newsom on Sunday.
Authorities have yet to quantify the extent of property losses, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in an update posted on Monday that more than 4,900 homes were threatened by flames.
Already the largest blaze in California this year, the fire has charred 55,493 acres (22,457 hectares) of drought-stressed timber and remained at 0% containment, Cal Fire reported.
Two smaller wildfires in the same county that scorched just over 2,700 acres combined as of Monday and had chased at least 200 residents from their homes, Cal Fire said.
The two bodies from the McKinney fire were found on Sunday in a car parked in a residential driveway west of the community of Klamath River, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on Monday. The agency said it would have no further information until the next of kin were notified.
Forensic investigators dressed in white protective suits sifted through debris from the vehicle and collected remains for identification. A sheriff’s spokesperson on the scene said skid marks were found on the driveway.
“It appears that they were trying to flee the fire and likely couldn’t see to get out,” the spokesperson said, adding that the vehicle appeared to have rammed into the driveway gate and “fell off the embankment.”
Elsewhere along a highway running through the fire zone, an Oregon-based volunteer search-and-rescue team with cadaver dogs combed the grounds of other incinerated properties for signs of possible additional victims.
The cause of the blaze was under investigation. But the fire erupted amid record-breaking heat in a region where desiccated trees and undergrowth already had created a highly combustible fuel bed.
Prolonged drought and unusually warm weather have stoked increasingly frequent and extreme wildfire behavior in California and elsewhere across the Western United States in recent years, a pattern scientists say is symptomatic of human-induced climate change.
Firefighting crews took advantage of a low-pressure weather system that brought rain to much of the fire zone on Sunday evening and continued to douse the region on Monday, helping to tamp down the blaze, US Forest Service officials said.
But the same weather system also carried the potential for thunderstorms, and with it erratic winds and lightning strikes that could ignite new blazes.
“The one thing we’ve learned about thunderstorms is we can’t predict what’s going to happen,” Forest Service spokesperson Adrienne Freeman said.
In the meantime, crews focused much of their work carving fire containment lines along the Klamath River corridor to create a protective buffer near the towns of Yreka and Fort Jones, Freeman said.
A layer of heavy smoke trapped close to the ground by low pressure, a phenomenon called an “inversion layer,” also stunted fire growth since Sunday evening, though reduced visibility curbed firefighting aircraft operations, according to the Forest Service.
Newsom on Sunday declared a state of emergency for Siskiyou County, a sparsely populated area larger than the state of Connecticut, having availability of government disaster response and relief.
Among the fire evacuees was Harlene Althea Schwander, 81, an artist who moved to the area only a month ago to be near her son and daughter-in-law.
“I’m very sad. My house is gone, all my furniture, all clothes, shoes, coats, boots. Everything is gone,” Schwander told Reuters on Sunday outside an American Red Cross evacuation shelter.
The McKinney blaze marked the second major wildfire in California this season. The Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park was 72% contained after blackening more than 19,244 acres, Cal Fire said on its website.