As the ash began to fall and his throat burned from the smoke, Franklin Thom decided it was time to leave the town where he grew up on the edge of the California national forest.
On Monday, he was living in a shelter with only his medicine, some clothes, his shower shoes, his daughter and the word that, unlike some others, he had escaped California’s biggest fire this year with his home still standing.
“Keep your prayers out for us,” Thom, 55, said.
At least two people have died and more than 100 homes, sheds and other buildings have burned in the McKinney fire since it broke out last Friday, and the blaze remains out of control, authorities said.
Two bodies were found inside a charred vehicle Sunday 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 state line with Oregon exploded in size to nearly 87 square miles (225 square kilometers) after starting in the Klamath National Forest. It was one of several fires that raged through the western United States, threatening thousands of homes.
In northwestern Montana, a fire that started Friday afternoon near the town of Elmo on the Flathead Indian Reservation measured 20 square miles (52 square kilometers), fire officials said. Some people were forced to flee their homes as gusty afternoon winds drove the fire eastward.
The California wildfire started small but exploded over the weekend as thunderstorm cells brought wind gusts to 50mph at times.
Cloudy weather and some good rain helped the fire crews on Sunday night and Monday. Bulldozers managed to ring the town of Yreka (Wye-REE’-kuh) with firebreaks, while crews cutting fire lines in steep and rugged terrain also made progress, fire officials said.
The fire stayed about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Yreka, a scenic town of about 7,500 people.
“We’ve had the weather,” said Todd Mack, a fire chief with the US Forest Service. “We have the horsepower. And we’ll get after it.”
But the weather was a mixed blessing. Helgelyn also sparked 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 chance of lightning starting new fires and gusting winds from thunderstorms drive the flames.
Among those waiting out the fire at the shelter Monday was Paisley Bamberg, 33. She arrived in Yreka a few months ago from West Columbia, South Carolina.
She was staying at a motel with her six children, ranging in age from 15 to her 1-year-old twins, when she was told to evacuate.
“I started throwing everything on top of my truck,” but had to leave a lot of stuff behind, she said.
Bamberg said she had just been hired at an Arby’s restaurant and was wondering if it will survive the fire.
“There might not be much there when we get back,” she said. “I don’t know if I have a job. The children were supposed to start school, and I don’t know if the school is still standing.”
“I’m trying to keep my spirits up. I have six little people who depend on me, she said. “I cannot 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 a lot of people in the city, people who refused to leave,” he said. “A lot of people who don’t have vehicles and can’t walk. It’s very sad.”
Thom has lived in Yreka all his life, but this was the first time he was threatened by a forest fire.
“I never thought it would ever happen,” he said. “I thought, ‘We’re invincible.’ … This makes me a liar.”
Elsewhere, the Elk Fire in Idaho has burned more than 140 square miles in the Salmon-Challis National Forest while threatening homes, mining and fisheries near the town of Salmon. It was 23% contained on Monday.
And a wildfire raging in northwestern Nebraska prompted evacuations and destroyed or damaged several homes near the small town of Gering. The Carter Canyon Fire began Saturday as two separate fires that merged. It was about 30% contained by early Monday.
Scientists have said that climate change has made the West hotter 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 famed Pacific Crest Trail in northern California and southern Oregon. Sixty hikers in that area were helped to evacuate Saturday, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon, which assisted in the effort.
Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporters Amy Hanson in Helena, Montana; Margery Beck of Omaha, Nebraska; and Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.