Photos: McKinney fire has hit the stratosphere, spewing the ‘fire-breathing dragon of clouds’

A doe and fawn forage in the burn zone of the McKinney fire near Yreka.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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A fire big enough to make its own lightning used to be as rare as it sounds.

But the McKinney fire, which erupted Friday, generated four separate thunder and lightning storms within its first 24 hours alone. A deadly combination of intense heat, parched vegetation and dry conditions has turned the 55,000-acre blaze in the Klamath National Forest into its own force of nature.

Four separate times, columns of smoke rose from the flames beyond the altitude at which a typical jet flies, penetrating the stratosphere and injecting a plume of soot and ash miles above the Earth’s surface. It’s a phenomenon known as a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, a byproduct of fire that NASA once memorably described as “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds.”

In Siskiyou County, the water in these clouds returned to Earth as rain, accompanied by thunder, wind and lightning, in “a classic example of a wildfire producing its own weather,” said David Peterson, a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which has developed an algorithm to distinguish fire-induced thunderstorms from traditional ones.

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Sheri Marchetti-Perrault and James Benton embrace as they sift through the remains of their home near Yreka, Calif.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The McKinney fire does a slow burn in the Klamath Forest near Yreka on Tuesday.
The McKinney fire does a slow burn in the Klamath Forest near Yreka on Tuesday. The Northern California blaze has charred more than 51,000 acres and killed four people.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Smoke obscures the sun as it sets on the burn zone of the McKinley fire near Yreka.
Smoke obscures the sun as it sets on the burn zone of the McKinley fire near Yreka.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Two people look at a destroyed car.
Sheri Marchetti-Perrault and James Benton look at their destroyed car.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A metal sculpture of Bigfoot welcomes visitors to the tiny community of Happy Camp in the Klamath Forest.
A metal sculpture of Bigfoot welcomes visitors to the tiny community of Happy Camp in the Klamath Forest. The McKinney fire has charred more than 51,000 acres and killed four people in the area.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
People look over a burned home in the Mckinney Fire near Yureka.
James Benton, left, shows a Sheriff’s deputy the remains of his uncle, John Cogan, whom Benton believes perished in the McKinley fire as it burned their home along Highway 96 near Yreka over the weekend.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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A firetruck drives along Highway 96 as the McKinney fire burns Saturday in Klamath National Forest.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
Angela Crawford leans against a fence near an above ground pool as the McKinney fire burns a hillside above her home.
Angela Crawford leans against a fence as the McKinney fire burns a hillside above her home Saturday in Klamath National Forest. Crawford and her husband stayed, as other residents evacuated, to defend their home from the fire.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
A scorched home.
A search and rescue worker looks through the remains of a home.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A charred pickup.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
After the fire.
Sheri Marchetti-Perrault and James Benton after the blaze destroyed their home and car.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A kitten with singed whiskers hides in rocks in the Klamath National Forest.
A kitten with singed whiskers hides in rocks Sunday in the Klamath National Forest.
(David McNew / AFP-Getty Images)
A burned statue.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Three firefighters watch flames from the McKinney fire burn trees in smoky Klamath National Forest.
Flames from the McKinney fire burn beyond firefighters Sunday in Klamath National Forest in Northern California.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
Charred residences and vehicles sit amid burnt trees and smoke.
Charred residences and vehicles.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
A horse stands in a pasture as smoke from the McKinney fire fills the sky over Klamath National Forest in the background.
A horse grazes in a pasture as the McKinney fire burns Saturday in Klamath National Forest.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)
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A firefighter battling the McKinney fire protects a cabin in Klamath National Forest.
A firefighter battling the McKinney fire protects a cabin Sunday in Klamath National Forest.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)