On the Front Lines of the McKinney Fire: Battling a Breeze-Blown Blaze
Crews in California continue to battle the McKinney Fire, which has torched 60,389 acres of the Klamath National Forest since it erupted on July 29, often because of winds whistling through the flaming timber and grasslands at more than 35 mph.
Wind is one of the deadliest weapons Mother Nature can hurl at crews battling a wildfire. In the McKinney Fire, the gusts have been so strong that they’ve created burning dust devils that spin into the sky.
Breeze-blown blazes spread quickly, forcing firefighters to concentrate on evacuating people in the path of the destruction instead of corralling the conflagration.
So far, the McKinney Fire has destroyed 185 structures in Siskiyou County and damaged 11 more. It’s also injured 10 firefighters and killed four people, including longtime US Forest Service fire lookout Kathy Shoopman. She was 74.
“We’ve realized, while the fire is growing and doubling this quick, within, you know, a 12-hour period, that we can’t really do much,” said Edwin Zuniga, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighter and emergency medical technician on the front lines of the McKinney Fire. “We always try to save life, property, and resources, in that order.”
Zuniga told Coffee or Die Magazine that, when the wind starts sweeping the blaze in one direction, crews will position themselves on the flanks of the fire to push back burning offshoots. When the winds die down, they pounce on the blaze to extinguish it.
Danger comes when winds shift abruptly and the flames veer toward the crews, or the breeze blows embers behind the firefighters’ positions — a phenomenon called “spotting” — to spark another wildfire.
“So, while we are on the on the ground — on the line — we’re always trying to maintain that situational awareness around us to make sure that we’re not getting caught or being put in a position where we’re now having to fight our way out because we’re trapped with fire in all directions around us,” Zuniga said.
Weather is fickle. A shift in wind can trap crews between two wildfires, but it can also blow the blaze back on itself, prodding it toward areas that are already burned, so there’s no fuel to feed the fire.
Coffee or Die asked Zuniga about a viral video that shows firefighters hunkering down as smoke flows past them in northwestern Spain on July 21, waiting out an abrupt shift in the wind.
“So it’s an unfortunate thing, at least for us, and from what I’ve seen, in my experience, we just got to tough it out,” Zuniga said. “There’s no way around it.”
Zuniga pointed to the goggles and shrouds the bomberos_forestales donned to protect their eyes and lungs from smoke — the same kind of personal protective equipment CalFire crews use. But he said the real key to understanding their predicament comes at the end of the footage.
It shows a clearing they’d enter to escape the thickest clouds of smoke.
A key danger, he added, is that smoke also limits the visibility of aircrews battling the blaze from above, and that can lead to unchecked heat and a runaway fire, maybe in the direction of the crews on the ground.
The Spanish firefighters survived. And Zuniga said survival often comes down to two factors: clear and concise communications paired with movement of the crews away from danger.
He told Coffee or Die all firefighters should constantly check on egress routes, especially if they’re on the offense and punching into the blaze.
The only other choice for a crew trapped inside a burning ring of fire is to huddle under fire shelters, which temporarily reflect heat away from the bodies underneath them.
“If you find yourself in a spot where you can’t move, you have no escape routes, it’s making a decision whether you need to pull that fire shelter out, or make a way out, and adapting to it and trying to get the crew out safely,” he said.