The blaze, dubbed the McKinney Fire, broke out Friday afternoon in the Klamath National Forest near the California-Oregon border and has since ripped through more than 52,000 acres, advancing on homes and forcing nearly 2,000 residents to evacuate Saturday, authorities said.
Heavy smoke over the fire helped slow its growth Sunday, but also kept firefighting aircraft grounded, the US Forest Service said in a Sunday night update.
As the weekend ended, the blaze was 0% contained and firefighters faced a long battle ahead as lightning and thunderstorms complicated efforts while the flames raced through dry vegetation.
Oregon State Rep. Dacia Grayber was camping with her husband, both firefighters, near the California state line when they woke up to orange skies, hot wind tastes, lightning and blowing ash, she said on Twitter
. They evacuated from the campground knowing one of them may return on deployment if the fire grows.
“In 22+ years of fire I’ve never experienced anything like this fire behavior at night. It felt absolutely surreal and not just a little apocalyptic,” Grayber tweeted
The area remained under a Red Flag Warning as a threat of dry lightning, strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity created dangerous fire conditions through Sunday night. “Abundant lightning” is expected through Monday, as well as scattered thunderstorms that could potentially spread the flames out further, according to the National Weather Service.
“These conditions can be extremely dangerous for firefighters, as winds can be erratic and extremely strong, causing fire to spread in any direction,” forest service officials said in a news release.
The dry thunderstorms that occurred over the weekend happen when rainfall evaporates before ever hitting the ground, leaving only lightning strikes capable of sparking new fires and fueling existing ones, CNN Meteorologist Robert Shackelford said.
At an estimated 52,498 acres, the McKinney Fire has become California’s largest wildfire so far this year, CAL FIRE Capt. Chris Bruno told CNN.
And it isn’t the only blaze crews have to contend with. There were 10 different wildfires burning in the Klamath National Forest Sunday afternoon, forest officials said.
The fires generated their own weather in the form of pyrocumulus clouds, which are created from the intense heat of the fire forcing air to rise.
Tor Mason was one of the hundreds evacuated due to the McKinney Fire. He said he and his friends fled their homes and arrived at the Klamath River Community Center, only to find the fire closing in, he told CNN affiliate KDRV.
“When I got to the community center it was almost on fire. I’m like, holy crap, this isn’t good,” Mason said. “So I put the … pedal to the metal and I boogied. … I heard this morning it shot up in flames.”
California’s persistent drought conditions have set the scene for rapid fire spread in the forest, with the fires burning extremely dry, receptive fuels, according to the forest service.
Racing through dry brush, grass and timber, the fire activity has been extreme, with the flames running uphill, and spotting further out, according to fire officials.
“Klamath National Forest is a big and beautiful forest, but it also has some steep and rugged terrain. And with that, coupled with the high temperatures, low humidity, they all come into play and make it a very extreme fire danger situation right now ,” Tom Stokesberry of the US Forest Service told CNN affiliate KTVL.
A total of 648 firefighting personnel have converged on the blaze, attacking the flames from the ground and the air and working to defend evacuated homes.
Govt. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency Saturday for Siskiyou County, saying the blaze has destroyed homes and threatened critical infrastructure. CAL FIRE said no information was available on structures damaged by the McKinney Fire, though Stokesberry told KTVL there were unconfirmed reports of lost structures.
On Saturday, about 60 people were evacuated from the Pacific Crest Trail as the McKinney Fire approached, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon said on its Facebook page, noting the hikers were rescued from the “California side of the Red Buttes Wilderness.”
Conditions could get better Monday as the chance of isolated dry thunderstorms shifts to the north, Shackelford said. There is also a chance for up to 2 inches of rain falling over the area, which could aid firefighters battling the McKinney Fire.
CNN’s Paradise Afshar, Tina Burnside, Amanda Jackson, Robert Shackelford and Claire Colbert contributed to this report.