'Devastating': McKinney Fire destroys Klamath River community hub as California wildfire rages
If you wanted to join a Taco Tuesday get together, get married or play Bingo, the Klamath River Community Hall was where it happened. But not anymore.
The McKinney Fire destroyed what was the hub of the tiny town of Klamath River, along Highway 96 west of Yreka.
There are numerous individual stories of how the devastating fire swept through Klamath River over the weekend, sending residents fleeing from their homes.
But the community hall was the center of town activity, where residents shared their lives, attended classes, sat down and ate together, held community meetings and played pool, said Janet Jones, chief of the Klamath River Volunteer Fire Department.
The hall last month also hosted Grandpa Tom's Santa Maria Tri-tip/Family Fun Day luncheon.
Along with several other homes and structures in the community, including the post office, the hall burned down after the fire broke out Friday afternoon.
"That was the spot where the different organizations would come in, and do the food giveaways weekly. I think the loss of the community hall is devastating, but there's also a lot of people that have lost their homes, which is just as devastating," Jones said.
Jones said she wasn't sure how many buildings were destroyed in the community. She estimated there could be up to 100 buildings burned down.
That's impossible to confirm at this point. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has not issued an estimate of the number of structures destroyed. While many buildings succumbed, some survived, including Quigley's store.
By Monday morning the fire was about 55,500 acres and two people had been killed.
The McKinney Fire broke out shortly after 2 p.m. Friday. Jones said she was part of the initial attack crew on the fire and her team was at first able to keep flames from spreading into town — until Friday night.
Then the weather changed.
"So we were doing pretty good on it until there was a storm cell that moved into the area. When the storm cell came into the area, that was the game changer," Jones said.
Before storm clouds arrived, the fire had been moving away from town, she said. But the wind picked up, changed direction and blew the fire downhill, back toward town, she said.
Some social media posts claimed there was a fire tornado Friday night, but Brad Schaaf, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said his agency did not see evidence of that.
He said satellite images showed a "rotating smoke cloud" in the area of the fire that reached 4,500 feet into the atmosphere. But he could not confirm a fire whirl or fire tornado in the area of the blaze.
Wind was definitely a factor over the fire Friday night, though, Schaaf said. Gusts reached 40 to 50 mph and one gust was recorded at 60 mph, he said.
"And with funneling in terrain like that, it definitely could have caused issues," Schaaf said.
Firefighters contended with more than just wind. There were 82 lightning strikes in the area of the fire Friday, igniting several blazes, according to Cal Fire. The cause of the McKinney Fire is still under investigation.
Lightning continued through the weekend, with 26 strikes Saturday and another 14 on Sunday, Schaaf said.
And the unsettlled weather isn't going away. Showers and thunderstorms are expected to continue Monday night and Tuesday, when moderate to heavy rainfall is expected, Schaaf said.
Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environment reporter. He is part of a team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!