California McKinney Fire burns 80 square miles, without containment

The McKinney Fire along California’s border with Oregon exploded across 80 square miles on Saturday and forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 people in the Siskiyou County community of Yreka.

Officials said early Sunday morning that the 51,468-acre blaze — the largest yet 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 remained at 0% containment Sunday evening, but no further evacuations were ordered, tsaid the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office just before 7 p.m. No updated acreage was provided.

The blaze, however, remained at least 5½ miles from Yreka, according to an online map of the fire perimeter that the Yreka Police Department shared on Facebook Sunday morning.

“Little progress was observed on the edge of the fire closest to the town of Yreka,” the fire incident commanders wrote in their 8am update. A fire-mapping plane that flew over the perimeter on Sunday afternoon continued to show minimal spread to Yreka, county seat of Siskiyou and is home to 7,807 people.

Larry Castle and his wife, Nancy, were among 2,000 people in Yreka who were told they had to leave their homes on Saturday night. Officials walked through neighborhoods tying red flags to the mailboxes of each house they checked to make sure the occupants had left.

Larry Castle said he loaded a trailer with some of his most prized possessions, including his motorcycle and guns, and he, Nancy and three dogs headed up Mount Shasta to spend the night at their daughter’s house.

He hoped that the recent brush and tree clearing projects the foresters had carried out on the ridge above Yreka would save the town, but he was taking no chances.

“You look back at the Paradise fire and the Santa Rosa fire and you realize that this stuff is very, very serious,” he said, referring to the 2017 and 2018 wildfires that burned thousands of homes and killed dozens of people.

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A burnt out pickup truck rests on California Highway 96 in the Klamath National Forest as the McKinney Fire burns nearby Saturday. Noah Berger PA

Fire creates lightning and winds

The huge plume of smoke from the fire was creating its own weather, including thunderstorms. Lightning sparked other small fires, including one west of Fort Jones, Klamath National Forest officials said.

“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 a.m. briefing. “These conditions can be extremely dangerous for firefighters, as winds can be erratic and extremely strong, causing the fire to spread in all directions.”

The fire started at 2:38 p.m. Friday on Highway 96 and McKinney Creek Road southwest of the Klamath River, and the cause is still under investigation.

Authorities did not provide a tally of destroyed buildings, but maps show the fire burned in small, isolated communities, including the unincorporated town of Klamath River, home to around 190 people, 20 miles away. west of Yreka.

The blaze burned at least a dozen residences and wild animals were seen fleeing to avoid the flames.

Photos from the Grants Pass Daily Courier showed destroyed homes and the community center in Klamath River as well as burned vehicles on Route 96.

Officials said they spent the night preventing homes and buildings in the Klamath River area from burning. Other small communities being evacuated include those of Seiad Valley, Scott Bar and Horse Creek.

Stephanie Bossen of Klamath River and her dog, Biggie, were in Weed on Sunday trying to find accommodation. As she lived in Yreka when the fire broke out, she did not know if her house had survived. She said she was growing increasingly nervous as temperatures soared into the 100s over the past few days.

“I knew it was going to be bad, because all the dry heat and there’s been such a drought here recently,” she said. “It was going to be bad somewhere. I just hoped it wasn’t so close to my house.

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A horse grazes in a pasture as the McKinney Fire burns in the Klamath National Forest on Saturday. Noah Berger PA

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 provided buses for 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 remained at the shelter Saturday night, said Stephen Walsh, spokesman for the regional branch of the American Red Cross, which operates the site.

On Saturday, Fairchild Medical Center, Siskiyou County’s main hospital, moved patients, out of “an excess of caution,” to out-of-area hospitals as far away as Sacramento, a hospital spokesperson said.

But the hospital, located in a part of Yreka that is currently under an evacuation warning, remained open on Sunday.

Authorities also began compiling lists of animals lost or found to the fire; updated information on animal shelters and how to find lost pets in evacuation zones is available on the Siskiyou County website.

In the past 48 hours, the Rescue Ranch – a non-profit dog adoption and rehabilitation center in Yreka – has seen more than 130 animals, mostly dogs, dropped off by evacuees who cannot keep their animals pets in emergency shelters or motels, Natalie Golay, a spokeswoman for Rescue Ranch, said Sunday.

“They always come,” she said. One was a puppy that a news photographer picked up outside a burnt-out house inside the evacuated area. Golay said the owner, who had lost his home, found his dog on Sunday afternoon. The puppy’s name is Patches. It’s not an entirely happy ending, however. She said Patch’s owner feared for the lives of three other dogs he had to leave behind during the frantic evacuation.

The group launched a Facebook appeal for stainless steel buckets, dog food and other donations to feed and care for dogs.

Meanwhile, search and rescue teams from Oregon and California have located hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and escorted them to safety. The popular 2,650-mile hiking trail stretches from Mexico to Canada and winds 110 miles through the evacuated area.

About 60 hikers were transported on transit buses from the California side of the Red Buttes Wilderness on Saturday afternoon, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon.

The McKinney Fire is the largest so far this year, matching nearly all of the area burned in California so far in 2022 before it ignited.

Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Siskiyou County on Saturday.

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Angela Crawford watches as a wildfire called the McKinney Fire burns a hill above her home in Klamath National Forest, Calif., Saturday, July 30, 2022. Crawford and her husband remained, while others residents were evacuating, to defend their home from the fire. Noah Berger PA

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Flames from the McKinney Fire consume trees along California Highway 96 in Klamath National Forest, Calif., on Saturday, July 30. Noah Berger PA

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Burnt vehicles and residences line Oaks Mobile Home Park in the Klamath River community as the McKinney Fire burns through the Klamath National Forest on Saturday. Noah Berger PA
Angela Crawford leans against a fence as the McKinney Fire burns a hillside above her home outside Klamath National Forest on Saturday. Noah Berger PA

The Klamath River Community Hall is seen destroyed by the McKinney Fire in the community of Klamath River, Calif., Saturday, July 30, 2022. (Scott Stoddard/Grants Pass Daily Courier via AP) Scott Stoddard PA

In this remote image provided by Cal Fire, the McKinney Fire burns in Siskiyou County, as seen from the Antelope Mountain Yreka 1 observation camera, early Saturday, July 30, 2022. (Cal Fire via AP) Cal Fire PA

Sacramento Bee photographer Sara Nevis contributed to this story.

This story was originally published July 31, 2022 at 7:56 a.m.

Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.

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Ryan Sabalow covers environmental, corporate and investigative stories for McClatchy’s California Newspapers. Before joining The Sacramento Bee in 2015, he was a reporter for the Auburn Journal, Redding Record Searchlight and the Indianapolis Star.

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