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Angela Crawford leaning against a fence as the McKinney wildfire burns a hillside above her home in Klamath National Forest, California yesterday. Noah Berger

Wildfires in western US grow in size amid hot and windy conditions

A fire in California burned down at least a dozen homes and wildlife was seen fleeing the area to avoid the flames.

WILDFIRES IN THE US states of California and Montana ballooned in size overnight amid hot and windy conditions and were quickly encroaching on neighbourhoods, forcing evacuation orders for more than 100 homes yesterday. 

In California’s Klamath National Forest, the fast-moving McKinney fire, which started on Friday, went from charring just over 2.5 square kilometres to scorching as much as 160 sq km by yesterday in a largely rural area near the Oregon state line, according to fire officials.

The fire burned down at least a dozen homes and wildlife was seen fleeing the area to avoid the flames.

Klamath National Forest spokeswoman Caroline Quintanilla said: “It’s continuing to grow with erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area and we’re in triple digit temperatures.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Saturday as the fire intensified. The proclamation allows him more flexibility to make emergency response and recovery effort decisions and access federal aid.

It also allows “firefighting resources from other states to assist California crews in battling the fires”, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Parts of the US have experienced increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires in recent years as climate change has led to warmer and drier conditions.

Scientists have said weather will continue to be more extreme and wildfires more frequent, destructive and unpredictable as a result of human-induced global warming.

Elmo fire

In Montana, the Elmo fire nearly tripled in size to more than 28 sq km within a few miles of the town of Elmo.

Roughly 320 kilometres to the south, Idaho residents remained under evacuation orders as the Moose fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest charred more than 174.8 sq km of timbered land near the town of Salmon. It was 17% contained.

A significant build-up of vegetation was fuelling the McKinney fire, said Tom Stokesberry, regional spokesman for the US Forest Service.

“It’s a very dangerous fire – the geography there is steep and rugged, and this particular area hasn’t burned in a while,” he said.

western-wildfires A scorched pickup truck rests on California Highway 96 in Klamath National Forest, California yesterday. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

A small fire was also burning nearby, outside the town of Seiad, he said.

With lightning predicted over the next few days, resources from all over California are being brought in to help fight the region’s fires, he added.

McKinney’s explosive growth forced crews to shift from trying to control the perimeter of the blaze to trying to protect homes and critical infrastructure like water tanks and power lines, and assist in evacuations in California’s northernmost county of Siskiyou.

Deputies and law enforcement officers 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 on to trailers. Automated calls were being sent to land phone lines as well because there were areas without mobile phone service.

More than 100 homes were ordered to be evacuated and authorities were warning people to be on high alert. Smoke from the fire caused the closure of portions of Highway 96.

The Pacific Coast Trail Association urged hikers to get to the nearest town, while the US Forest Service closed a 177km section of the trail from the Etna Summit to the Mount Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.

u-s-california-wildfire Firefighters working to contain the wildfire in Mariposa County in California, US on 25 July. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

In Idaho, more than 930 wildland firefighters and support staff were battling the Moose fire yesterday and protecting homes, energy infrastructure and the Highway 93 corridor, a major north-south route.

A red flag warning indicated that the weather could make things worse with the forecast predicting “dry thunderstorms” with lightning, wind and no rain.

Meanwhile, crews made significant progress in battling another major blaze in California that forced evacuations of thousands of people near Yosemite National Park earlier this month.

The Oak fire was 52% contained as of yesterday, according to a Cal Fire incident update.

As fires raged across the West, the US House of Representatives 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.

The legislative measure approved by federal politicians combines 49 separate Bills and would increase firefighter pay and benefits, boost resilience and mitigation projects for communities affected by climate change, protect watersheds, and make it easier for wildfire victims to get federal assistance.

The Bill will now go to the Senate, where California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has sponsored a similar measure.

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