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

Wildfires in 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 on Saturday, while a blaze in Idaho was spreading. In California’s Klamath National Forest, the fast-moving McKinney fire, which started on Friday, went from charring just over one square mile (1 sq km) to scorching as much as 62 square miles (160 sq km) by Saturday 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.

Western WildfiresA fire truck drives along California Highway 96 as the McKinney Fire burns in Klamath National Forest (Noah Berger/AP)

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.

Meanwhile, in Montana, the Elmo fire nearly tripled in size to more than 11 square miles (about 28 sq km) within a few miles of the town of Elmo. Roughly 200 miles (320km) 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 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. A small fire was also burning nearby, outside the town of Seiad, he said.

Western WildfiresFlames from the McKinney fire consume trees along California Highway 96 in Klamath National Forest (Noah Berger/AP)

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 110-mile (177km) section of the trail from the Etna Summit to the Mount Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.

Western WildfiresA horse grazes as the McKinney fire burns in Klamath National Forest, California (Noah Berger/AP)

Oregon state Representative Dacia Grayber, who is a firefighter, was camping with her husband, who is also in the fire service, near the California state line when gale-force winds awoke them just after midnight.

The sky was glowing with strikes of lightning in the clouds, while ash was blowing at them, though they were in Oregon, about 10 miles (16km) away. Intense heat from the fire had sent up a massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud, which can produce its own weather system including winds and thunderstorms, Ms Grayber said. “These were some of the worst winds I’ve ever been in and we’re used to big fires,” she said. “I thought it was going to rip the roof top tent off of our truck.

We got the heck out of there.” On their way out, they came across hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail fleeing to safety. “The terrifying part for us was the wind velocity,” she said. “It went from a fairly cool, breezy night to hot, dry hurricane-force winds.

Usually that happens with a fire during the day but not at night. I hope for everyone’s sake this dies down but it’s looking like it’s going to get worse.” 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 Idaho.

The agency estimated it would take nearly a month to contain the blaze. Smoke 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.

Western WildfiresScorched vehicles and homes line the Oaks Mobile Home Park in the Klamath River community (Noah Berger/AP)

In Idaho, more than 930 wildland firefighters and support staff were battling the Moose fire on Saturday 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. In Hawaii, fire crews and helicopters were fighting flames on Maui near Paia Bay on Saturday evening.

The Maui County Emergency Management Agency said roads have been closed and have advised residents and travellers to avoid the area. It is unclear how many acres have burned. A red flag warning is in effect Sunday.

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 by Saturday, 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.