Inside the fire tornado that killed a California firefighter
The winds raged, as fast as 165 mph, uprooting trees and ripping off roofs. Windows on firefighting bulldozers shattered as gusts inside the vortex hurled debris, rocks and embers. Temperatures inside likely exceeded 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.
From a distance, firefighters battling the Carr Fire watched last month as the “large rotating fire plume” churned over Redding, California.
Then, their radios chirped as their comrade called for help.
He was trapped inside.
At its base, the fire tornado — with wind speeds equal to an EF-3 tornado — was 1,000 feet in diameter and reached about 40,000 feet into the sky, according to a new report from Cal Fire.
The fire prevention inspector, Jeremy Stoke, had been “engaged in community protection operations” and conducting welfare checks that day, according to the report and fire spokesman Anthony Romero.
Stoke had stopped at a fire station, then headed down Buenaventura Boulevard, the only way in and out of the Land Park and Stanford Hills neighborhoods, the report says.
That’s when he realized he was getting “burned over.”
He sent a “mayday” signal over his radio.
He needed a water drop.
But fire crews had no idea where he was, the report says. They didn’t know where to send a helicopter or an air tanker to douse the blaze.
And they couldn’t re-establish contact.
That was 7:40 p.m. on July 26.
Early the next morning, Stoke was found dead.
The fire tornado that claimed his life, killed a private bulldozer driver working to contain the fire and injured several others caught many “highly experienced firefighters” by surprise, according to Cal Fire’s report, which details the “extraordinary fire weather conditions” that spawned the rare phenomenon.
Footage released by Cal Fire shows a massive column of dark smoke wrapping around itself as fire pitches higher and higher into the air.
As of Friday, the Carr Fire had killed eight people and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, according to Cal Fire. It had burned more than 218,600 acres, was 75% contained and had been declared the sixth-most destructive fire in state history.
‘A loud, disturbing, deep growling noise’
As Stoke radioed for help that day, embers and debris bombarded three bulldozer drivers. The windows on all three machines shattered, throwing glass into the eyes of one operator.
They managed to escape, but one suffered smoke inhalation, and another suffered burns to his hands, neck and back, the report says.
The firestorm also destroyed the home of Ed Bledsoe, whose wife and two great-grandchildren were also killed.
“The tornado was hovering over the house,” Amanda Woodley, Bledsoe’s granddaughter, told CNN. “It was just a tornado fire over the house.”
Few fire tornadoes of this magnitude ever have been observed, Craig Clements of San Jose University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory told CNN.
A fire tornado forms when the heat from an intense blaze causes the air to heat up quickly and rise rapidly. Combined with strong surface winds, those conditions create a vortex.
“The wind went from zero wind to 40- to 60-mph winds within 15 minutes,” said Justin Sanchez, who said his house was consumed by the fire tornado. “(There was) a loud, disturbing, deep growling noise as it spun around in a spiral. It seemed the outside was moving around so slowly, with 2-foot sized pieces of debris floating in it.”
Crew leader to bulldozer operator: ‘Get out of there’
The report also provides more details about the death of a private bulldozer driver, who was working that same evening to construct a fire line above the Spring Creek Reservoir several miles outside Redding.
The driver had been sent to improve the line but was warned by a crew leader to not proceed if it was unsafe or if he was uncomfortable, according to Cal Fire’s report.
Neither was aware, however, that earlier that morning, a Cal Fire bulldozer had abandoned this same fire line, telling his supervisor it was “too steep and overgrown” to be viable, the report says.
Around 5:45 p.m., moments after the private bulldozer operator made his way to the fire line, crews witnessed a “rapid increase in fire activity,” and the leader tried to call the driver several times to tell him to “get out of there,” the report says.
When they finally made contact, the driver said he’d been cut off by the wildfire and asked for water drops to aid his escape. Several helicopters began dropping water on the area “as conditions worsened.”
Soon a helicopter coordinator caught a glimpse through a clearing in the smoke of the bulldozer engulfed in flames. Two fire captains tried to reach it but turned back because of the heat and smoke, the report says.
The bulldozer operator was confirmed dead around 7 p.m.