KLAMATH RIVER, Calif. (AP) — The scenic Northern California hamlet of Klamath River was home to about 200 people, a community center where they gathered, a corner store and a post office. But the wildfire raging through the forested region near the Oregon state line jumped the river last weekend, killing four residents of the tiny community and turning most of its homes and businesses to ash.
Some Klamath River residents are now picking through the burned out shells of their modest houses. Eighty-year-old Roger Derry said he and his son are among the few families whose homes were spared by the inferno.
“It’s very sad. It’s very disheartening,” said Derry, who has lived in the unincorporated town for more than four decades. “Some of our oldest homes, 100-year-old homes, are gone. It’s a small community. Good people, good folks, for the most part, live here and in time will rebuild. But it’s going to take some time now.”
The McKinney Fire was still out of control on Wednesday despite some progress by firefighters who took advantage of thunderstorms that dumped rain and temporarily lowered heat that can help fan flames in the parched region.
Amid storms on Tuesday that dumped heavy rain and swelled rivers in the area, a private contractor aiding the firefighting effort was hurt when a bridge gave out and washed the contractor's pickup truck away, said Courtney Kreider, a spokesperson with the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office. The contractor was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, she said.
Several thousand people remained under evacuation orders, 100 buildings ranging from homes to greenhouses have burned and at least four bodies have been found near Klamath River within the burned area of the wildfire that is among those that have become fiercer in recent years throughout the Western U.S. Identifying the people were were killed, including two found inside a burned vehicle in a driveway, could take several days, Kreider said.
The fire has charred nearly 90 square miles (233 square kilometers) since it erupted last Friday and is the largest of several wildfires burning in the Klamath National Forest.
The blaze grew very little Tuesday, and fire officials said crews managed to use bulldozers to carve firebreaks along a ridge to protect homes and buildings in and around the small city of Yreka.
Wildfires in Montana, Idaho and Nebraska have destroyed some homes and continue to threaten communities.
Just four years ago, a massive blaze in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California virtually razed the Butte County town of Paradise, killing 85 people.
Scientists have said climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
When it began, the McKinney Fire burned just several hundred acres and firefighters thought they would quickly bring it under control. But thunderstorms came in with ferocious wind gusts that within hours had pushed it into an unstoppable conflagration.
Roger Derry and his son Rodger, decided not to evacuate when the fire broke out and said their home survived after they had tried to safeguard it by trimming away nearby bushes. Firefighters also showed up and dug firebreaks around the neighborhood. But the fire was terrifying as it approached.
“When that fire came over that ridgeline, it had 100-foot flames for about 5 miles and the wind was blowing. It was coming down like a solid blowtorch," Roger Derry said. “There was nothing to stop it.”
Klamath Falls was virtually wiped off the map, with the fire destroying most of its homes, including those in a trailer park, along with the post office, community hall and scattered businesses. The cause has not been determined.
In northwestern Montana, a fire that started Friday near the town of Elmo on the Flathead Indian Reservation has burned some structures and prompted evacuations, but authorities said they didn’t immediately know if any of them were homes. The blaze measured 25 square miles (66 square kilometers) on Tuesday, with 10% containment, fire officials said.
The Moose Fire in Idaho has burned more than 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) in the Salmon-Challis National Forest while threatening homes, mining operations and fisheries near the town of Salmon. It was 23% contained Tuesday, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.
And a wildfire in northwestern Nebraska led to evacuations and destroyed or damaged several homes near the small city of Gering. The Carter Canyon Fire began Saturday as two separate fires that merged. It was more than 30% contained by Tuesday.