KLAMATH RIVER (CBS SF) – An intense thunder cell downdraft passing over the Klamath River sparked the explosive growth of the McKinney Fire, claiming the lives of two local residents who were unable to outrun the flames.
Cal Fire Siskiyou Chief Phil Anzo vividly described the first hours of the shooting as flames erupted in the Klamath National Forest along the California-Oregon border, ending fire crews Cal Fire and other residents fleeing for safety.
“The conditions were beyond our control,” he said at a community rally on Monday evening. “We had a thunder cell that came over this incident and blew very strong downdrafts and spread fire in all directions. Thank goodness our firefighters were able to get out of the way.”
The wall of flames ripped through the small community of Klamath River, reducing homes to piles of rubble. Two residents were unable to escape the fire. They did it inside a car in a residential driveway.
Other residents spoke of the frightening speed of the flames. It was unclear whether a “firenado” was fueling the blaze.
Sherri Marchetti-Perrault described her heartbreaking escape to reporters at Monday night’s meeting.
“When we left, everything was on fire,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It happened so fast. We left with the clothes on our backs. We couldn’t breathe and we couldn’t see.”
Her 78-year-old uncle refused to leave. She feared he would be killed.
Chris Hodgson also escaped the flames.
“He traveled from the top of that ridge down in the space of maybe 15 minutes with exploding trees,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was the most amazing and terrifying thing you’ve ever seen.”
The loss of homes and years of memories also weighed heavily on the evacuees. Among them, Harlene Schwander, an 81-year-old local artist.
“My house is gone, all my furniture, all my clothes, shoes, coats, boots,” an emotional Schwander said. “It’s all gone.”
Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue told the rally that search crews had targeted 100 burned structures to inspect to see if there were more casualties.
Along the lines of fire, crews were trying to take advantage of wet conditions and cloud cover to slow the progress of the flames. Defensive lines had been reinforced to protect Yreka and Fort Jones, the two largest threatened communities.
But Anzo admitted that “firefighters face difficult conditions”.
Fire behavior analyst Dennis Burns said wet conditions and rain showers along part of the fire’s perimeter slowed growth overnight and early Tuesday.
On Monday, the fire was at 55,493 acres with zero containment.
“We have a very humid atmosphere, the humidity is still around 60% and we are actually expecting severe thunderstorms this afternoon,” Burns said in his morning update. “Depending on where they set up, if they set up above the incident, we might see up to an inch of rain. But if they set up further away and we get some outgoing winds, they might fan the fire.”