As firefighters battle the raging wildfire scorching a Northern California forest and swallowing homes in its path, some residents forced to flee are left to grapple with the losses and an uncertain future.
Klamath River resident Kayla Dailey, pregnant with her third child, spent her due date not prepping for the imminent delivery of her daughter, but fleeing the McKinney Fire, which she says ultimately engulfed her home.
Dailey, her husband Levi, their two young sons, and the family’s roommate Dalton Shute relocated to Northern California from Indiana just 4 months ago. Wildfires were not something the family had encountered before.
The blaze, the largest wildfire in California so far this year, broke out Friday afternoon in the Klamath National Forest near the California-Oregon border and grew rapidly over the weekend, fueled by explosive fire weather.
The fire sprinted through dry brush and grass, scorching more than 56,000 acres and forcing thousands to evacuate as the flames advanced on rural Klamath River communities. The fire had zero containment as of Tuesday.
However, in a hopeful sign, US Forest Service officials said lower temperatures and higher humidity levels – as well as rain over some areas of the fire – slowed down the fire’s spread and helped firefighters to make good progress Tuesday.
“I was really confused at first. I had never seen a forest fire,” explained Dailey. “Things just looked weird – there was this orange cast over the forest – and once I saw smoke rising from fire over top of the mountains, I just panicked.”
The couple and their roommate immediately packed all into their small car, leaving room for little else.
“I could see nothing but smoke and the fire coming down the mountain,” said Dailey, who later learned the wildfire started just 3 miles away before it raced for their home, the flames feasting on their belongings, including everything set aside for the new baby.
Now, 4 days past her due date, Dailey has yet another new worry: The nearest hospital has been evacuated and she’s been warned that she will likely need to make a 2-hour trek through the mountains to give birth at a hospital in Medford, Oregon.
It remains unclear how many homes were lost, but forest officials said “numerous” structures were destroyed around the Klamath River community.
Four people have been found dead in the fire’s burn area, including two who were in a burned vehicle in a home’s driveway and another two found at different homes along the same road, State Route 96, according to the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office.
More than 5,800 people have been evacuated due to the fire, Joel Brumm, a spokesperson for the Klamath National Forest, told CNN.
‘We don’t even have an address anymore’
Valerie Linfoot and her husband, both retired forest firefighters, lost their home of more than three decades.
“We’ve fought fires and seen homes burn up and been in a place of being the firefighters there doing that work, but to have it happen to yourself, it’s just unimaginable,” Linfoot told CNN. “I’m still overwhelmed that we’re the victims of this horrible, horrible convergence of weather and fire, which so many times we’ve seen other people suffer.”
Linfoot was out of town when the fire quickly advanced on her home. Her husband, Chuck, saw the flames approach and packed up and left. He drove to the community hall and looked back, seeing flames flanking their home on both sides.
“There’s nothing left. It’s completely burned down to the dirt. It’s just completely gone,” Linfoot said.
For Linfoot, the hardest part is thinking about the irreplaceable items that were left behind when her home burned down.
“It’s a lot to take on in your mind thinking about those things that you’re never gonna get back,” she said. “I left my wedding rings on my dresser and I’m never gonna get those back. I have been married 31 years and those are the rings that were put on my finger the day I said yes. And they’re gone forever.”
Also lost in the fire were the ashes of Linfoot’s mother and grandmother, as well as her children’s baby photographs.
“We lost one of our sons about 10 years ago in a motorcycle accident. So the idea of not having any pictures…” she said.
Linfoot has found comfort in the sense of community in Klamath River, and staying close with friends who are also dealing with the same losses. But she worries for her tightly knit community.
“It’s a small community and this is absolutely devastating to Klamath River,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re gonna recover. None of us are rich people. We’re all hardworking and resilient people, but most people that were down there are middle class, regular working folks or retirees.”
She said her family is exploring their options, but don’t think they will be able to rebuild. The Linfoots set up a GoFundMe page to help them with recovery and rebuilding.
“It’s hard to convey to somebody what it’s like to know that you have nothing. One of the first things my husband said to me is, ‘we don’t even have an address anymore,’” Linfoot said.
Shute, the Dailey’s friend and roommate, is still struggling to process the situation.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” said Shute, who lost his mom to a house fire when he was 6 years old. “I feel that sort of emptiness I felt when I was a child.”
Despite the challenges they’ve faced, Shute and his roommates are confident that they will rebound, and are grateful for the help being offered by the community. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help him find a new home.
“We’re definitely not going to let this set us back,” Shute said. “Right now we’re learning to take it one day at a time and we’ll eventually be in a good place again.”