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TULELAKE, Calif. — Though a lightning-sparked wildfire straddling Siskiyou and Modoc counties continues to grow, evacuations ordered for parts of the Tulelake area have been lifted by authorities as firefighters dig in along the fire's north side.
Fire officials also said on Tuesday afternoon that the mandatory evacuations for the Modoc County community of Tionesta would be lifted tonight.
We're monitoring a scary situation for the #firefighters of 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. Stay safe out there! #CAwx pic.twitter.com/Cu25z7sKBd— NWS Medford (@NWSMedford) July 24, 2020
The Caldwell Fire — now the largest wildfire in the region — started near Caldwell Butte, roughly in the southeastern area of the Lava Beds National Monument. It continues to spread quickly with the latest update on Tuesday estimating the fire to be 70,622 acres with 30 percent containment.
Growth in all directions over the weekend brought the fire close to homes in multiple communities from Tulelake to Tionesta, resulting in those evacuation orders.
Fire officials lifted evacations for the Tulelake area after making progress on Monday, later adding Tionesta after the day's firefighting efforts.
"Aircraft assisted with efforts until weather no longer allowed, and firefighters worked aggressively to create control measures and implemented direct line construction using heavy equipment, engines, and hand crews," fire officials said of Monday's efforts. "They conducted tactical burning operations off road systems and performed point to point structure protection (going from structure to structure and reducing the potential for ignition by removing burnable material). Crews successfully prevented fire spread into the town."
On Friday, fire officials estimated the Caldwell Fire at less than 7,900 acres, underlining the fire's tremendous growth over the weekend.
"As predicted, yesterday’s weather included thunderstorms and erratic outflow winds," fire officials said. "These conditions created extreme fire behavior and growth on the Caldwell Fire."
For Tuesday, firefighters plan to focus on creating and enforcing control lines — striving to reinforce the water line at the marshes south of Tulelake, as the tules are prone to catching fire. On the east side of the fire, officials said that the threat to Tionesta is "significantly diminished."
"Firefighters will improve and work to complete control line in this area," officials said. "Fire crews on the west side will be performing burning operations to clean up the west edge and further secure the control line. These burning operations ‘fill in’ areas of unburned fuel, thus limiting the potential for more unpredictable fire behavior."
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.
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.