Wildfires in the US explode in size amid hot, windy conditions

Wildfires in the US explode in size amid hot, windy conditions
Wildfires are raging in multiple areas around California and Montana. Wind, lightning and hot temperatures are making conditions very dangerous for firefighters.
4 min read
Crews from several different agencies are struggling to contain the blazes. [ Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images]

Wildfires in California and Montana exploded in size overnight amid windy, hot conditions and were quickly encroaching on neighbourhoods, forcing evacuation orders for over 100 homes Saturday, while an Idaho blaze was spreading.

In California's Klamath National Forest, the fast-moving McKinney fire, which started Friday, tore across an estimated 28 square miles (72.5 square kilometres) by Saturday morning after starting Friday in a largely rural area near the Oregon state line, according to fire officials.

Meanwhile in Montana, the Elmo wildfire doubled in size to more than 6 square miles (about 16 square kilometres) near the town of Elmo and Flathead Lake. Roughly 200 miles to the south, Idaho residents remained under evacuation orders as the Moose Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest charred more than 67.5 square miles (174.8 square kilometres) in timbered land near the town of Salmon. It was 17% contained.

As fires raged across the West, the U.S. House on Friday approved wide-ranging legislation aimed at helping communities in the region cope with increasingly severe wildfires and drought — fuelled by climate change — that have caused billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses in recent years.

Wind, lightning and hot temperatures were expected to make the McKinney blaze “problematic for the firefighters” over the weekend, according to officials. The explosive growth forced crews to shift from trying to control the perimeter of the blaze to trying to protect structures and assist in evacuations in California's northernmost county of Siskiyou, home to Mount Shasta.

Deputies and law enforcement were knocking on doors in the county seat of Yreka and the town of Fort Jones to urge residents to get out and safely evacuate their livestock onto trailers. Automated calls were being sent to land phone lines as well because there were areas without cell phone service.

More than 100 homes were evacuated and authorities were warning people to be on high alert.

“We’re asking residents all over the area to be ready,” Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Courtney Kreider said. “Last night we were pushing out evacuations about every hour, and there are large portions of the county that are in warning areas."

Moments later, she said, "Oh — we just added another zone to the evacuation warning.”

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In western Montana, the wind-driven Elmo fire forced evacuations of homes and livestock as it raced across grass and timber, according to The National Interagency Fire Centre, based in Boise. The agency estimated it would take nearly a month to contain the blaze.

Smoke from the blaze shut down a portion of Highway 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo because of the thick smoke, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.

Crews from several different agencies were fighting the fire on Saturday, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Fire Division. Six helicopters were making drops on the fire, aided by 22 engines on the ground.

The Lake County Sheriff's Office said Saturday morning that additional homes were in “pre-evacuation” status, and residents were being asked to monitor information from area agencies in case the weather shifts and more evacuations are needed.

In Idaho, more than 930 wildland firefighters and support staff were responding to the Moose fire Saturday.

A red flag warning indicating that the weather could cause extreme fire behaviour was in effect for the area, with “dry thunderstorms” — generally causing lightning and wind without rain — expected.

Firefighters were working to protect homes, energy infrastructure and the Highway 93 corridor, a major north-south route. Two pilots fighting the fire died when their helicopter crashed into the Salmon River on July 21.

As federal lawmakers approved the bill Friday, crews in California battled a blaze that forced evacuation of thousands of people near Yosemite National Park and firefighters in North Texas sought to contain another fire. The measure combines 49 separate bills and would increase firefighter pay and benefits; boost resiliency and mitigation projects for communities affected by climate change; protect watersheds; and make it easier for wildfire victims to get federal assistance.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has sponsored a similar measure.