Klamath River straddles heartbreak and hope after deadly McKinney Fire
This story is provided free of charge as a public service to our communities. Please support local journalism and subscribe.
Kyle Lowe stared into the debris of twisted metal and burned-out rubble that used to be his grandmother's restaurant and bar, and saw the dreams he had for reopening the historic building reduced to ashes by the McKinney Fire.
Next door was the lodge where president Herbert Hoover and other dignitaries visited to fish in the Klamath River during the 1930s. But the lodge was also destroyed in the blaze, another piece of history gone.
The bar, restaurant and lodge were just a few of the dozens of structures destroyed by the fast-moving fire, which on Friday night raced through the tiny community of Klamath River west of Yreka.
"It's your hometown. It's heartbreaking, man. There's no words. It was a large part of me," Lowe said.
But Lowe isn't the only one wondering what the future holds. The fire burned through more than 56,000 acres as of Tuesday, killed four people and destroyed an estimated 100 structures.
The fire burned fastest and hottest Friday night when a thunderstorm blew into the area with driving winds and gusts up to 50 mph.
Lowe's friend, Tony Carter, said he was at home when the fire came rushing into town. Firefighters urged him to leave, but on his way out of town, he stopped at Lowe's grandmother's house to pick her up.
"And then when I got here, they were arguing with me and I was like, 'Look, I'm getting out of here. Just don't worry about it. Give me two minutes. I'm trying to get these dogs out and get some animals in the car and we're gone,'" Carter said.
But when he returned Sunday, his mobile home was completely gone, he said. Since then he has been staying with Lowe and his fiancee at Lowe's grandmother's house.
While the house is less than 30 feet from the Idle Hour bar and restaurant that burned down, Lowe's grandmother's house was not damaged in the fire.
"Yeah, it's a most remarkable thing to have anything standing," Lowe said.
Janet Jones, chief of the Klamath River Volunteer Fire Department, said she was on initial attack on the fire, working with crews from the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The blaze was still less than 200 acres on Friday afternoon, and crews were making good progress on the fire, she said.
She said big storm clouds moved in Friday night and the strong wind came up, forcing them to quickly retreat. They didn't even have time to gather their portable pumps and fire hoses.
"There wasn't time to pick them up. It was that fast. Yeah, as we were coming out, we were passing the engines down below us as they were disconnecting their hose. And they're like, 'Should we try to pick these up? and we were like, 'No, you guys need to go.'"
McKinney Fire updates:Some medical services resume; unstable air could create hazardous conditions
As it blew through town, the fire destroyed the Klamath River Community Hall. At more than 100 years old, it was one of the primary meeting places in the community.
It was where people got married, gathered twice a month for Taco Tuesdays, bingo, games and other events, Jones said.
But the hall was burned down to the foundation, reduced to what is now a familiar sight in Klamath River, twisted metal, ashes and burned out vehicles. The nearby post office also was destroyed.
They had recently remodeled the hall's kitchen and had started on refurbishing the restrooms. Someone had donated an air conditioner and they had a fresh set of guest chairs.
McKinney Fire map:Where the wildfire is burning in Siskiyou County
But like others in the community, Jones shifts from heartbreak to hope. She and others are already making plans to rebuild.
"We're getting the fire and hall board's together and trying to get people to communicate, because we know it's a long process," she said. "Being a smaller community, we haven't done this before. We've been through a lot of fires, but nothing of this magnitude."
The plans for a new hall include possibly rebuilding with the fire hall and community center on the same lot.
The hall, Jones said, was just one piece of history that was lost in the fire. One historic home, known as Tapawingo, once hosted Franklin D. Roosevelt, she said.
But the historic Quigley's Store, named after "Moon" Quigley, survived the fire and remains another structure to give the community a sense of place. Jones said Moon Quigley got his name from the moonshine he used to brew at the location.
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 email@example.com and on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!