KLAMATH RIVER, Calif. (AP) — Firefighters battling the McKinney Fire in Northern California on Monday remembered long-time U.S. Forest Service employee Kathy Shoopman, the first publicly identified victim of the fire.
The fire burning west of Yreka has killed four people, and crews continue to search the area for other possible victims. The other three have not yet been publicly identified.
Shoopman was at home in the small community of Klamath River when the fire started July 29, The Mail Tribune reported. The area was hard hit by the fire, with many homes burned.
“She had a home there that she’d stayed in for 50 years, and when she was asked to evacuate that first Friday night, she said she’d be more comfortable staying,” Klamath National Forest Supervisor Rachel Smith said during a Monday morning firefighter briefing.
Forest Service spokesperson Tom Stokesberry told the Sacramento Bee Monday that the 73-year-old died at her home on the day the fire erupted. Officials didn’t say exactly how she died.
He said Shoopman was an employee with the agency since 1974, working at lookout stations, where people scan the landscape for wildfires. Her post since 1993 was the Buckhorn lookout, about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) north of Klamath River.
“She was pretty much a legend in that community, named ‘lookout of the year’ in 2015,” Stokesberry said. “When Kathy called in a smoke, they knew it was spot-on."
Community members said she had been a school teacher before she started working for the U.S. Forest Service.
“Be aware as you’re going out there that standing beside you are some of Kathy’s co-workers, her friends, her long-time colleagues, her neighbors in Klamath River. Please be safe out there, and have a safe day,” Smith told firefighters at the Monday briefing.
Firefighters are not only dealing with the threat from smoke and flames, but from hot temperatures. Three people were treated for heat-related illnesses Sunday, fire managers said.
Born in 1948, Shoopman was a gardener, talented artist and animal lover, Klamath National Forest officials said.
“We share this sorrow with each and every one of you, and we know that individually, and as the supportive community that we are, we will find many ways to honor Kathy’s life and service and keep her spirit in all of our lives,” Forest Service officials said in a Monday Facebook post announcing her death.
By Monday afternoon, hundreds of people had posted comments on that post expressing condolences, sharing memories of Shoopman and thanking her and other fire personnel for their service.
The McKinney Fire, which had burned more than 94 square miles (243 square kilometers) as of Monday, wiped out the scenic hamlet of Klamath River, where about 200 people lived. The flames reduced most of the homes and businesses to ash.
The fire was 40% contained on Monday.
Scientists have said climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. Across the American West, a 22-year megadrought deepened so much in 2021 that the region is now in the driest spell in at least 1,200 years.