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Caldwell Fire balloons to more than 63,000 acres, prompting evacuations

An incident management team is on the scene of a large lightning-caused fire roughly in the southeastern area of Lava Beds National Monument.

Posted: Jul 27, 2020 9:41 AM
Updated: Jul 27, 2020 9:25 PM

TULELAKE, Calif. — A lightning-sparked wildfire straddling Siskiyou and Modoc counties has grown rapidly over the weekend, forcing evacuation orders for parts of the Tulelake area.

The Caldwell Fire — now the largest wildfire in the area — started near Caldwell Butte, roughly in the southeastern area of the Lava Beds National Monument. It continues to spread quickly with the latest update Monday night estimating the fire to be 63,749 acres with 0 percent containment. Growth in all directions has brought it close to homes in multiple communities from Tulelake to Tionesta.

On Friday, fire officials estimated the Caldwell Fire at less than 7,900 acres, underlining the fire's tremendous growth over the weekend.

"Yesterday’s thunderstorms caused strong and erratic outflow winds that contributed to rapid fire spread on the Caldwell Fire," fire officials said on Monday. "The fire burned throughout the night and spread primarily to the north."

Fire officials said that they expected more "unstable conditions" on Monday, with winds expected to create more extreme fire behavior and growth.

By Monday afternoon, the Modoc County Sheriff's Office had ordered a mandatory evacuation for the community of Tionesta, just over the Siskiyou County line west of Highway 139 due to "unstable weather and extreme fire activity."

"Fire is active on the west and east sides of the fire," the U.S. Forest Service said. "Fire on the east is approaching Hwy 139. Firefighters are working aggressively to implement control measures and structure protection is in place where needed."

Both the Lava Beds park and the Medicine Lake Recreation Area are under mandatory evacuations due to the Caldwell Fire's spread. The 10 Road, or Lava Beds Road, has been closed since Thursday.

The Forest Service said that the Medicine Lake closure was "out of an abundance of caution" because the fire threatens to cross Forest Service Road 97, which could cut campers off from an exit to the east.

Over the weekend, the Modoc County Sheriff's Office issued mandatory evacuations for some county roads in the Tulelake area south of Highway 139, in addition to evacuation warnings for the Copic, Panhandle, and Peninsula areas south of the highway.

"Firefighters on the north of the fire will prioritize protecting structures in the Tulelake area and construct both direct and indirect containment line," fire officials said. "Crews on the west of the fire will continue work on the secondary containment lines between the fire and the Medicine Lake area."

The U.S. Forest Service called in a Type 2 Incident Management last week for multiple lightning-caused fires in the area, dubbed the July Complex. Most of the other fires in the complex are within Modoc County.

There were at least 15 active fires within the Modoc National Forest, according to fire officials, and most were kept to a small and manageable size. Several of those fires grew beyond initial containment efforts, but have since been fully lined.

The National Weather Service tweeted on Thursday afternoon, saying that it was monitoring a "scary situation" over the Caldwell Fire.

"The smoke has developed into a 'pyrocumulus' and has been generating lightning strikes for the last couple of hours. It will likely continue to do so until sunset," NWS said.

The formation of a pyrocumulus cloud could cause dry lightning strikes — potentially sparking even more fires — and high, erratic winds that cause the wildfire to move and grow in unexpected directions, NWS said.

USFS later said that those erratic winds have caused the fire to spread "in every direction, sometimes all at once."

A smoke plume from the Caldwell Fire is visible even from long distances.

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