By Nouran Salahieh and Claudia Dominguez, CNN
A wildfire in Northern California that exploded in size over the weekend has killed at least two people, forced thousands to evacuate and grown into the state’s largest wildfire this year, with lightning Monday threatening its further expansion.
The McKinney Fire broke out Friday afternoon in the Klamath National Forest near the California-Oregon border and has since ripped through more than 55,000 acres, advancing on homes and forcing nearly 2,000 residents to evacuate Saturday, authorities said.
The blaze has become California’s largest wildfire so far this year, Cal Fire Capt. Chris Bruno told CNN.
Two people were found dead Sunday morning inside a vehicle that burned in the path of the fire, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office said. The two were found on a residential driveway along Doggett Creek Road near Highway 96, the sheriff’s office posted Monday morning on Facebook. Officials have not released any more information on them.
As the weekend ended, the blaze was 0% contained, and firefighters face a long battle ahead as lightning and thunderstorms complicated efforts while the flames raced through dry vegetation. Heavy smoke over the fire helped slow its growth Sunday but also kept firefighting aircraft grounded, the US Forest Service said in a Sunday night update.
Oregon state Rep. Dacia Grayber her husband, both firefighters, were camping near the California state line when they woke up Saturday to orange skies, hot wind gusts, lightning and blowing ash, she said on Twitter. They evacuated from the campground knowing one of them may return on deployment if the fire grows.
“In 22+ yrs of fire I’ve never experienced anything like this fire behavior at night. It felt absolutely surreal and not just a little apocalyptic,” Grayber tweeted.
The fire is just one symptom of the American West’s historic drought and the human-caused climate change crisis, which has caused more frequent and more severe wildfires. California’s persistent drought conditions have set the scene for rapid fire spread in the forest, with the fires burning extremely dry, receptive fuels, according to the forest service.
Sprinting through dry brush, grass and timber, the fire activity has been extreme, with the flames running uphill, and spotting further out, according to fire officials.
“Klamath National Forest is a big and beautiful forest, but it also has some steep and rugged terrain. And with that, coupled with the high temperatures, low humidity, they all come into play and make it a very extreme fire danger situation right now,” Tom Stokesberry of the US Forest Service told CNN affiliate KTVL.
Over 2 million under red flag warnings Monday
The fire risk could intensify Monday.
“Abundant lightning” is expected through Monday, as well as scattered thunderstorms, which could spread the flames out further, according to the National Weather Service.
“These conditions can be extremely dangerous for firefighters, as winds can be erratic and extremely strong, causing fire to spread in any direction,” forest service officials said in a news release.
Dry thunderstorms like those occurring over the weekend happen when rainfall evaporates before ever hitting the ground, leaving only lightning strikes capable of sparking new fires and fueling existing ones, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said.
More than 2 million people are under red flag warnings Monday in parts of northern California, central Oregon, eastern Washington, Montana, eastern Wyoming, western South Dakota and northwestern Nebraska, CNN meteorologist Haley Brink said.
And it isn’t the only blaze crews have to contend with. There were 10 different wildfires burning in the Klamath National Forest Sunday afternoon, forest officials said.
The fires generated their own weather in the form of pyrocumulus clouds, which are created from the intense heat of the fire forcing air to rise.
Tor Mason was one of the hundreds evacuated due to the McKinney Fire. He and his friends fled their homes and arrived at the Klamath River Community Center, only to find the fire closing in, he told CNN affiliate KDRV.
“When I got to the community center it was almost on fire. I’m like, “Holy crap, this isn’t good,” Mason said. “So I put the … pedal to the metal and I boogied. … I heard this morning it shot up in flames.”
The fire left a path of destroyed vehicles, scorched structures and haze-filled skies along Highway 96, according to video recorded Saturday by Kirk Eadie, EMS manager for Happy Camp Ambulance.
About 650 firefighting personnel have converged on the blaze, attacking the flames from the ground and the air and working to defend evacuated homes.
Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency Saturday for Siskiyou County, saying the blaze has destroyed homes and threatened critical infrastructure. Cal Fire said no information was available on structures damaged by the McKinney Fire, though Stokesberry told KTVL there were unconfirmed reports of lost structures.
On Saturday, about 60 people were evacuated from the Pacific Crest Trail as the McKinney Fire approached, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon said on its Facebook page, noting the hikers were rescued from the “California side of the Red Buttes Wilderness.”
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CNN’s Holly Yan, Eric Levenson, David Williams, Paradise Afshar, Tina Burnside, Amanda Jackson and Claire Colbert contributed to this report.