Thunderstorms and mudslides have hampered firefighters’ battle this week against the deadly McKinney fire in Klamath National Forest at the California-Oregon border, authorities said.
Three inches of rain on the fire’s east flank caused mudslides and wreaked havoc for firefighters struggling to stop the steady advance of the blaze, which has killed four people. The fire remained at 56,668 acres and containment at 10% on Thursday evening, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“When the water comes down that fast, it doesn’t penetrate. It just runs off, which actually causes some problems,” said Dennis Burns, fire behavior analyst for the U.S. Forest Service. “We had a lot of mudslides, washed out some roads, some vehicles were stuck, things like that, but it had very little effect on the fire.”
One video circulating on Twitter on Wednesday showed a semi-truck and at least three pickups stopped on a road as a river of muddy water rushed down steep terrain.
One man climbed into his truck through the window as water seeped under the door.
“It’s going to get worse!” one firefighter can be heard yelling.
The heat and smoke coming from the massive fire have been so strong they pushed smoke higher than jet-cruising altitude, helping create four separate thunderstorms — an extremely rare occurrence but one that scientists warn will happen more often because of climate change and the dangerous frequency and intensity of wildfires.
Still, the lower temperatures Wednesday brought some relief for the more than 1,300 firefighting personnel on the ground who fought through triple-digit heat earlier in the week.
Firefighters were unable to expand the perimeter of fire lines around the fire. Instead they focused on building dozer lines around Yreka, the county seat just east of the fire, to protect buildings there.
Crews also worked to build lines near Baldy Gap and Humbug Creek on the southern edge of the fire. Before dark, firefighters were able to fly tankers over the area and strengthen fire lines with retardant, hoping to stop the flames’ path.
“The hope is we’re going to try to get the fire to back down to the dozer lines that we have in place,” Burns said.
But as temperatures rose Thursday with humidity dropping to single digits, officials were keeping close watch for any increase in fire activity.
The northern end of the blaze, where an alignment of the wind and area slopes could push the fire forward, was of particular concern. Still, Burns said firefighters were confident they could keep the fire in check, with the assistance of air tankers.
“We’re going to bolster that with a little bit of retardant today,” he said Thursday.
The shift in weather was forecast, and Burns said during a community meeting Wednesday night that the hotter, drier conditions were not expected to spur the blaze toward any large runs.
He and other officials at the meeting urged residents to stay alert.
Darryl Laws, a unified incident commander with Cal Fire, called the McKinney fire “a sleeping giant.”
Though residents were allowed to return home Wednesday after some evacuation orders were changed to warnings, Laws and other officials said residents should be ready to evacuate as needed.
“When people don’t heed those orders and they call 911 … that takes us away from being able to put out the fire,” he said. “The best way to protect your homes is for us to get out there and put out that fire.”
More than 20 zones remained under evacuation orders Thursday night. Residents can find a real-time map of areas under evacuation orders and warnings at community.zonehaven.com.
A community meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Siskiyou Golden Fairgrounds and will be livestreamed for those who can’t attend in person, officials with the Klamath National Forest said Thursday.
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