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Death toll of northern California's Mckinney Fire reaches 4

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The death toll from the McKinney Fire burning in Northern California has now risen to four, with authorities warning that number could still go up. Much of the tiny town of Klamath River, which is near the Oregon border, has reportedly burned. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that this is one of several fires burning out of control in the West, which has, again, been baking in record heat.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The McKinney Fire - so far California's largest and deadliest wildfire this year - has now burned close to 90 square miles of dry, overgrown forests since it ignited Friday. But there is finally some good news - humidity and rain. Fire behavior analyst Dennis Burns says storms dumped 3 inches over at least parts of the fire last night.

DENNIS BURNS: But other parts of the fire got no rain whatsoever. We're going into a warmer, drier period, so we expect to see the activity increase pretty significantly today through tomorrow.

SIEGLER: He means more dreaded red flag warnings for extreme fire danger through at least tomorrow. That's the story across this drought-stricken region from here on the West Coast to the Great Plains, where prairie fires have ignited in Wyoming and burned homes in Nebraska. Climate scientists are again warning that prolonged heat waves - like a week of extreme heat recently from Washington state to Montana - are more common now with climate change.

C T CAMEL: Well, just the triple digits, you know, 100 degrees plus - you know, that's not a good recipe.

SIEGLER: C.T. Camel is a fire prevention officer with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in Montana. There, the Elmo Fire has been burning out of control and threatening homes and closing roads along Flathead Lake at the height of tourist season. Camel says his crews can't catch a break because these modern wildfires no longer lay down at night. It's still hot.

CAMEL: It's always been a go, go, go type job. But, you know, when the fires are getting bigger, quicker because of the wind, because of the flashy fuels and the heat, you know, it does take its toll on some of the firefighters.

SIEGLER: Firefighters, already in short supply due to labor shortages, are exhausted. And with these erratic fires burning so hot they create their own weather, the conditions often just aren't safe for crews to even try to slow down the flames. Retired firefighter Timothy Ingalsbee runs the Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. It's a group pushing for an overhaul in U.S. fire suppression and prevention policies.

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: Productivity is very low in these really hot and dry and smoky conditions.

SIEGLER: Ingalsbee says mostly crews can just try to protect homes and lives in the fire's path - you're not going to stop these blazes. That's, again, the plan today on the McKinney Fire in Northern California, where firefighters are working to slow its eastward spread toward the town of Yreka.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.