Thunderstorms, mudslides hamper firefighters’ battle against deadly McKinney wildfire

Responders from Mount Shasta Fire Department navigate around a vehicle buried by a mudslide
Responders from the Mount Shasta Fire Department navigate around a vehicle buried by a mudslide.
(Via Mount Shasta Fire Department / Facebook)

Thunderstorms and mudslides have hampered the battle against the McKinney fire in Klamath National Forest at the California-Oregon border, authorities said.

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Thunderstorms and mudslides have hampered firefighters’ battle this week against the deadly McKinney fire in Klamath National Forest at the California-Oregon border, authorities said.

Three inches of rain on the fire’s east flank caused mudslides and wreaked havoc for firefighters struggling to stop the steady advance of the blaze that has killed four people. The fire had grown to 58,668 acres as of Thursday morning, with 10% containment, officials said.

“When the water comes down that fast it doesn’t penetrate, it just runs off which actually causes some problems,” said Dennis Burns, fire behavior analyst for the U.S. Forest Service. “We had a lot of mudslides, washed out some roads, some vehicles were stuck, things like that, but it had very little effect on the fire.”

One video circulating on Twitter on Wednesday showed a semi-truck and at least three pickups stopped on a road as a river of muddy water rushed down steep terrain.

One man climbed into his truck through the window as water seeped under the door.

“It’s gonna get worse!” one firefighter can be heard yelling.

The heat and smoke coming from the massive fire have been so strong they pushed smoke higher than jet-cruising altitude, helping create four separate thunderstorms — an extremely rare occurrence but one that scientists warn will happen more often because of climate change and the dangerous frequency and intensity of wildfires.

Still, the cooler temperatures Wednesday brought some relief for the more than 1,300 firefighting personnel on the ground who fought through triple-digit temperatures earlier in the week.

Firefighters were unable to expand the perimeter of fire lines around the fire. Instead firefighters focused on building dozer lines around Yreka, the county seat just east of the fire, to protect buildings there.

Crews also worked to build lines near Baldy Gap and Humbug Creek on the southern edge of the fire. Before dark, firefighters were able to fly tankers over the area and strengthen fire lines with fire retardant, hoping to stop the flames path.

“The hope is we’re going to try to get the fire to back down to the dozer lines that we have in place,” Burns said.

But as temperatures heat up Thursday and humidity drops to single digits, Burns said they also expect the fire to “respond in kind.”

Fire officials are keeping an eye on the northern end of the blaze, where they fear an alignment of the wind and area slopes can push the fire forward. Still, Burns said firefighters were confident they could keep the fire in check, with the assistance of air tankers.

“We’re going to bolster that with a little bit of retardant today,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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