The McKinney Fire along California’s border with Oregon exploded in size Saturday to 80 square miles and forced the evacuations of more than 2,000 people in the Siskiyou County community of Yreka.
Officials said early Sunday morning that the 51,468-acre fire — the largest so far in California’s still-early wildfire season — was 0% contained. State Highway 96 was closed along the Klamath River and several other small, rural communities remained evacuated.
The fire, however, remained at least 5½ miles from Yreka, according to an online map of the fire perimeter the Yreka Police Department shared Sunday morning on Facebook.
“Little progression was observed on the fire’s edge closest to Yreka City,” the fire’s incident commanders wrote in their 8 am update. A fire-mapping plane that flew over the perimeter Sunday afternoon continued to show minimal spread toward Yreka, Siskiyou County’s seat and home to 7,807 people.
Larry Castle and his wife, Nancy, were among the 2,000 people in Yreka who were told they had to leave their home Saturday night. Officials were going through neighborhoods tying red flags on the mailboxes of every house that they’d checked to ensure the occupants had left.
Larry Castle said he loaded up a trailer with some of his prized possessions, including his motorcycle and his rifles, and he, Nancy and three dogs headed to Mount Shasta to spend the night at their daughter’s house.
He was hopeful that recent brush and tree thinning projects foresters had conducted on the ridge-top above Yreka would save the town, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
“You look back at the Paradise fire and the Santa Rosa fire and you realize this stuff is very, very serious,” he said, referring to wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that burned thousands of homes and killed dozens of people.
Fire creates lightning and winds
The massive smoke plume from the fire was creating its own weather, including lightning storms. Lightning strikes sparked other small fires, including one west of Fort Jones, according to Klamath National Forest officials.
“The area remains in a Red Flag Warning today for a threat of dry lightning and strong outflow winds associated with thunder cells,” officials wrote in their 8 am briefing. “These conditions can be extremely dangerous for firefighters, as winds can be erratic and extremely strong, causing fire to spread in any direction.”
The fire erupted at 2:38 pm Friday at Highway 96 and McKinney Creek Road southwest of the Klamath River, and the cause remains under investigation.
Officials haven’t provided a tally of buildings destroyed, but maps show the fire has burned through small, isolated communities, including the unincorporated town of Klamath River, home to about 190 people, 20 miles west of Yreka.
The fire burned down at least a dozen residences and wildlife was seen fleeing to avoid the flames.
Photos from the Grants Pass Daily Courier showed homes and the community center destroyed in Klamath River as well as burned vehicles on Highway 96.
Officials said they spent the nighttime hours keeping homes and buildings in the Klamath River area from burning. Other small communities under evacuation include those in Seiad Valley, Scott Bar and Horse Creek.
Stephanie Bossen of Klamath River and her dog, Biggie, were in Weed on Sunday trying to find a place to stay. Because she was staying Yreka when the fire hit, she did not know if her home de ella survived. She said she’d been growing increasingly nervous as the temperatures climbed into the 100s over the past few days.
”I knew that was gonna be bad, because all the dry heat and it’s been such a drought around here recently,” she said. “It was gonna be bad somewhere. I just hoped it wasn’t so close to my house.”
Hikers and pets evacuated
On Saturday afternoon, Yreka police evacuated a mobile home park called Oakridge Mobile Estates “due to its proximity to the fire and the need for additional time for this group of residents to safely evacuate,” the police department said in a Facebook post.
Authorities were providing buses to residents who needed transportation out of the area and set up an evacuation center at the Weed Community Center, 161 E. Lincoln Ave. Twenty-two people stayed at the shelter Saturday night, said Stephen Walsh, a spokesman for the area branch of the American Red Cross, which is operating the site.
Officials also had begun compiling lists of animals lost or found because of the fire; Updated information on animal sheltering and how to find animals lost in the evacuation zones is available on the Siskiyou County website.
In the past 48 hours, the Rescue Ranch — a nonprofit dog adoption and rehabilitation center in Yreka — has seen more than 130 animals, mostly dogs, dropped off by evacuees who are unable to keep their pets at emergency shelters or motels, Natalie Golay, a Rescue Ranch spokeswoman, said Sunday.
“They’re still coming in,” she said. One was a puppy that a news photographer picked up from outside a home that burned inside the evacuated area.
The group put out a call on Facebook seeking stainless steel pails, dog food and other donations to keep the dogs fed and cared for.
Meanwhile, search and rescue teams from Oregon and California have been locating hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and escorting them to safety. The 2,650-mile popular hiking trail runs from Mexico to Canada and meanders for 110-miles through the evacuated area.
Around 60 hikers were transported in public transit buses from the California side of the Red Buttes Wilderness Saturday afternoon, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon.
The McKinney Fire is the largest to date this year, matching nearly all of the acreage burned in California so far in 2022 before it ignited.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Saturday in Siskiyou County.
Sacramento Bee photographer Sara Nevis contributed to this story.
This story was originally published July 31, 2022 7:56 AM.