Firefighters in northern California were battling Monday to gain control over the state’s largest wildfire this year, which claimed two lives after exploding in size over the weekend and forcing thousands to evacuate their homes.
Whipped up by strong winds and lightning storms, the McKinney Fire ripped through the state’s dry terrain Sunday to spread over some 21,246 hectares (52,500 acres) of Klamath National Forest near the town of Yreka – and was zero percent contained as of Sunday night, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
California and other parts of the western United States have been ravaged by huge and fast-moving wildfires in recent years, driven by years of drought and exacerbated by a warming climate.
The McKinney Fire, which broke out Friday near the border with Oregon, is California’s largest wildfire so far this year — though it remains much smaller than last year’s Dixie Fire, which burned nearly one million acres.
According to the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, firefighters on Sunday found two people dead inside a burned-out car on the driveway of a home in the community of Klamath River – in the fire’s path.
Speaking on ABC News, Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue said firefighters suspected the pair were caught in the fast-moving fire as they tried to flee.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency, saying the fire threatens “critical infrastructure”.
More than 2,000 residents of rural neighbourhoods in the area were under evacuation orders, according to the California Office of Emergency Services, mostly in Siskiyou County.
Yreka resident Larry Castle told the Sacramento Bee newspaper that he and his wife had packed up a few possessions and their three dogs to leave for the night, as other fires in recent years had taught them the situation could turn “very, very serious”.
A spokeswoman for the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, quoted by US media, said the fire had destroyed more than 100 structures – including homes, a grocery store and a community centre – in the area surrounding Yreka, though it had not encroached upon the town of about 7,800 people.
State Route 96 and McKinney Creed Road southwest of the Klamath River were closed to the public, Cal Fire said.
Nearly 650 people were working to douse the blaze as of Sunday, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group said.
Search and rescue teams evacuated 60 people who had been hiking the area’s popular Pacific Crest Trail, according to the sheriff’s department in Jackson County, Oregon.
Cal Fire said the cause of the McKinney fire was still under investigation.
The US Forest Service (USFS) said thick smoke had helped to limit the growth of the fire on Sunday, but also meant that firefighters’ aircraft were “mostly grounded”.
Fire crews were working above Fort Jones and west of Yreka “to cut off the fire’s progress”, the USFS said.
The fast-spreading blaze comes just days after the Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park destroyed dozens of buildings and forced thousands to evacuate.