As ash began to fall and his throat burned from smoke, Franklin Thom decided it was time to leave the town where he grew up on the edge of California’s National Forest.
On Monday he stayed at an animal shelter with only his medicine, some clothes, his shower shoes, his daughter and the news that unlike some others he had escaped California’s biggest fire of the year while his house was still standing.
“Hold your prayers for us,” said Thom, 55.
At least two people have died and more than 100 homes, sheds and other buildings have burned down in the McKinney Fire since it started last Friday and the blaze remains out of control, authorities said.
Two bodies were found Sunday in a charred vehicle in the driveway of a home near the remote community of Klamath River, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. Other details were not immediately released.
The fire in northern California near the Oregon state line blew out to nearly 87 square miles (225 square kilometers) after starting in the Klamath National Forest. It was one of several fires that raged across the western United States, threatening thousands of homes.
In northwest Montana, a fire that broke out Friday afternoon near the town of Elmo on the Flathead Indian Reservation measured 52 square kilometers, firefighters said. Some people were forced to flee their homes as gusty afternoon winds drove the fire east.
The California fire started small but exploded over the weekend as thunderstorm cells brought intermittent wind gusts of up to 50 mph.
Cloudy weather and some rain helped firefighters Sunday night and Monday. Bulldozers managed to encircle the town of Yreka (Wye-REE’-kuh) in firebreaks, while crews expanding fire lines in steep and rough terrain also made progress, fire officials said.
The fire stopped about 4 miles from Yreka, a quaint town of around 7,500 people.
“We have the weather,” said Todd Mack, a fire department commander with the US Forest Service. “We have the HP. And we’ll follow.”
But the weather was a mixed blessing. Weekend lightning also started several smaller fires near the McKinney fire. And despite the much-needed moisture, forests and fields in the region remained bone dry.
Yreka could see a high of nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) on Tuesday, and the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning of extreme fire danger through Tuesday night due to the possibility of lightning sparking new fires and gusty winds from thunderstorms flow out to fuel the flames.
Among those waiting for the shelter fire Monday was Paisley Bamberg, 33. She came to Yreka a few months ago from West Columbia, South Carolina.
She was living in a motel with her six children, aged 15 to her one-year-old twins, when she was told to evacuate.
“I started throwing everything on my truck,” she said, but had to leave a lot behind.
Bamberg said she had just been hired at an Arby’s restaurant and was wondering if it would survive the fire.
“Maybe there won’t be much left when we come back,” she said. “I don’t know if I have a job. The children should be enrolled in school and I don’t know if the school is still standing.”
“I try to keep my spirits up. I have six little people who depend on me,” she said. “I can’t break down or falter.”
About 2,500 people were under evacuation orders, but Thom said he knew many people remained in Yreka.
“There are still many people in the city, people who have refused to leave,” he said. “A lot of people who don’t have a car and can’t walk. It’s really sad.”
Thom has lived in Yreka all his life, but this was the first time he was threatened by wildfire.
“I never thought it would ever happen,” he said. “I thought, ‘We are invincible.’ … That makes me a liar.”
Elsewhere, the Idaho moose fire 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. On Monday it was 23%.
And a wildfire that raged across northwestern Nebraska prompted evacuations and destroyed or damaged several homes near the small town of Gering. The Carter Canyon fire started Saturday as two separate fires that merged. By early Monday it was about 30% contained.
Scientists have said that climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the past three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
The US Forest Service closed a 177-kilometer section of the famous Pacific Crest Trail in northern California and southern Oregon. As of Saturday, 60 hikers in that area were being helped to evacuate, according to the Oregon Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, which was assisting with the effort.
Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporter Amy Hanson in Helena, Montana; Margery Beck of Omaha, Nebraska; and Keith Ridler of Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.