One year later: How a community is rebuilding after the McKinney Fire

KLAMATH RIVER, Calif. – Saturday marks one year since the McKinney Fire ripped through Siskiyou County, just west of Yreka, causing thousands to evacuate.

“When I turned to the north, I saw the smoke plume, so the fire started on our property,” Mike Story said.

On July 29, 2022, Klamath River resident and former volunteer firefighter Mike Story said he responded to a fire on his property.

He quickly realized, he needed more help.

“I naively thought that it was going to be okay,” he said.

Once forest service and Cal Fire firefighters arrived, Story said everything seemed under control.

Until it wasn’t.

“Storm came in and blew the fire everywhere,” he said. “It was at that time we had to evacuate.”

This was the McKinney fire.

The fire blew up overnight, reaching over 30,000 acres by the next day.

Siskiyou County Office of Emergency Services director Bryan Schenone recalls what he saw the evening the fire started.

“We could start to see that plume building and the wind was moving pretty quick and then you saw the lightning strikes and we knew we were going to be in for a long night,” he said.

Schenone said it did not take long before evacuations were in place.

They lasted for weeks.

“It was a super evolving incident because it kept moving and it kept changing and also at one point we had 5,800 people under evacuation,” Schenone said. “We were looking at full evacuation of the city of Yreka and full movement of our emergency operations center to a remote location.”

In the end, the McKinney fire burned over 60,000 acres in the Klamath National Forest.

Tens of thousands of fish in the Klamath River died as a result of massive debris flows from flash flooding during the fire.

It was California’s deadliest fire in 2022, with four confirmed fatalities, all from Klamath River, which has a population of just 190 people.

185 structures were destroyed.

“Essentially when I got back, the hall was gone, everything was gone. And it was just such a devastating day,” Story said.

Through fundraising, grant money and volunteer work, they’re hoping to rebuild the hall so the community has a place to gather once again.

“We felt it was symbolic that we use the lumber that I guess was given to us by the fire inadvertently to re-build the hall and try to make lemonade out of lemons,” Story said.

That lumber was donated by the Klamath National Forest.

Story, who is the chairman of the board for the community hall, said the plan is make the hall even better than before.

They want it to be larger, add a pavilion for shade, and upgrade the area around it.

But the project could cost one to two million dollars.

“People are starting to move back,” Story said. “People that are looking to move down here to this area to purchase property I think would feel pretty good that there was a community hall and a place to get together and a place for recreation.”

One year after the devastation, the re-build process is just starting for many in the community.

Siskiyou County OES said the full-clean up for the fire just finished in June but the job is far from over.

“This is the hard part, so this is the long part of recovery,” Schenone said. “This is where homes are going to start to get rebuilt. We’re going to try and find places where survivors can really lean on each other. We’re still seeing unmet needs. We’re still seeing people struggle to get plans approved. Where the finances are going to come to get equipment or get telephone polls or wood or whatever it might be.”

Now, that process begins for the people in Klamath River.

“Our community is still here,” Story said. “Our community still loves this area. Help is coming, obviously it’s never fast enough but there are reasons to hold your head high. And we will get past this.”

The cause of the McKinney Fire remains under investigation.

Pacific Power’s parent company, PacifiCorp is being sued for allegedly starting the deadly fire.

The lawsuit alleges the company’s equipment created sparks igniting dry vegetation nearby.

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NBC5 News reporter Zachary Larsen grew up in Surprise, Arizona. He graduated from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. At ASU, Zack interned at Arizona Sports 98.7FM and Softball America. During his Junior year, Zack joined the ASU Sports Bureau. He covered the Fiesta Bowl, the Phoenix Open and major basketball tournaments. Zack enjoys working out, creative writing, music, and rooting for his ASU Sun Devils.
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