Aug. 17—"Mayday!" Redding fire inspector Jeremiah "Jeremy" Stoke yelled over the radio as an astonishing combination of heat and swirling wind—which few firefighters had ever seen—bore down on him.
Stoke's voice crackled through the priority radio transmission, reporting that he was heading south on two-lane Buenaventura Boulevard, getting burned over and needed a water drop.
But it was too late for the 37-year-old who had been working July 26 to help evacuate residents from the fast-approaching Carr Fire. It was along the expanse of dry brush and trees on the western outskirts of Redding that high-velocity ocean winds cascading down from Bully Choop Mountain mixed with warm dry air to create a fire tornado, as powerful as an F3 twister with a footprint the length of three football fields and winds up to 165 mph.
Stoke was found dead the next morning just east of the roadway, one of two fatalities and five firefighter injuries suffered during just 110 minutes of unprecedented fire behavior. That day was one of the deadliest so far in California's fire season, one that already has killed 14 people, including six fire crews.
The stories of those caught in the raging flames and the terrifying vortex that day are documented in minute-by-minute detail in a report released by Cal Fire this week, providing a harrowing account of fire crews' final moments and others who miraculously managed to escape.
The first takeaway from the report is that erratic fire behavior that once would have been considered rare is slowly becoming the norm in California.
"Firefighters must recognize the wildland firefighting environment is becoming more extreme due to a combination of a changing climate, overly dense and dry fuels, changing weather patterns, and continued growth of communities into fire prone landscapes," the authors wrote.
In the future, Cal Fire investigators warned, if you see a fire tornado like the one that bore down on July 26 at the Carr Fire—run.
Don Ray Smith traveled more than 200 miles from his hometown of Pollock Pines to Redding as a Cal Fire contractor. On the afternoon of July 26, the 81-year-old bulldozer operator—identified as Dozer 1—was assigned to Division V to work with a Cal Fire hand crew strike team near Spring Creek Reservoir. They were extending a containment line to prevent the approaching fire from reaching nearby homes.
Smith headed downhill in his bulldozer about 5 p.m., leaving the Buckeye Water Treatment access road behind. He didn't know that three heavy equipment operators already had tried unsuccessfully to create a line there but had aborted their efforts because of the terrain.
By 5:44 p.m., the fire activity increased dramatically, according to the report, and firefighters observed the flames jumping above where Smith had left the road, blocking his path. Crew leaders frantically radioed for Smith to escape, and two firefighters tried to run down to pull him out. But Smith responded over the radio that he was trapped and was trying to dig out a safety zone to survive the flames.
For the next half hour, helicopters dropped water on the spot as the fire worsened. There was no radio response. A firefighter reached the burned remains of the dozer around 7 p.m. and found Smith's body. There was no sign that fire shelters or shields had been deployed.
A mile southeast, a Marin County engine company surrounded a house on George Street, in a neighborhood in the foothills sporadically populated with houses, clearing brush. Around 7:05 p.m., the fire blew up and the crew dropped their tools and took cover behind an outbuilding. The firefighters watched as their hoses began to catch fire, as well as the brush below the fire truck.
One fire engineer burned his hand reaching for the door handle, while the others burned their faces racing back to the safety of the truck. Twenty minutes after the fire erupted, the crew was able to leave the property and escape. Three were sent to a hospital with minor burns.
By that point, spot fires had jumped the Sacramento River two miles west, and firefighters noticed the massive fire plume beginning to circulate.
Redding posted a record high temperature of 113 degrees on July 26, while Eureka, over the coastal range mountains to the west, only reached 59, a 54-degree difference. As the sun began to set, the heat and low humidity inland began sucking the cold wind from the Pacific Ocean over the mountains.
Those winds cascaded down into the Redding valley at high speed and collided with the calm and warm air, creating a "hydraulic jump" of swirling air. The phenomenon is similar to fast-moving water flowing down a dam spillway and creating a wave when it hits the slower-moving water at the base. But in the case of a fire, the turbulence can create a massive rotation of hot air. By 7:23 p.m., it fueled a fire tornado that "surprised many highly experienced firefighters," according to the report, with many taking photos and video.
Around 7:40 p.m., a dashcam video from a firefighter already at Land Park, the subdivision where Stoke was heading to when he was overcome, captured the massive fire vortex. A windshield wiper blade partially obscures the view through the windshield, but the twisting mass of fire can be seen moving closer with a bright glow of multiple fires in its wake.
Around 8 p.m., three bulldozer operators lumbered north on Buenaventura, the opposite direction Stoke had been traveling. Suddenly, their heavy equipment was struck by flying debris, rocks, embers, smoke and intense heat. They had run into the fire tornado, with temperatures exceeding 2,700 degrees and wind speeds toppling large oak trees and damaging roofs of houses.
Windows shattered on all three of the tractors, with glass injuring one man's eyes. One driver deployed his fire curtains. Another became disoriented and crashed into a parked car. Unable to deploy his curtains with a burned hand, that driver cut the straps with a knife to position the safety shields. Due to the heat, he tried to hide under his rig, but his path was blocked.
At the same time, two Cal Fire pick-ups evacuating residents drove by, and the bulldozer operator who had crashed and then wrapped himself in a personal fire shelter jumped into the backseat. At one point, the high winds shattered the pick-up's windows and forced the truck off the road.
By 8:14 p.m., the eminent danger had passed. The three bulldozer operators had either been rescued from the fire tornado or survived it in their rigs. One operator from that group suffered burns to his hands, neck and back, while another had smoke inhalation and glass in his eye, according to the report.
As of Thursday, the Carr fire continues to burn in mostly remote areas, and crews now have it 71 percent contained. It has scorched more than 214,000 acres and destroyed 1,077 residences. In addition to Stoke and Smith, Andrew Brake, a Cal Fire equipment operator, died in a traffic accident on his way to the fire. Five civilians also have died, including a 70-year-old woman and her two great grandchildren who perished July 26.
The Cal Fire report's findings mostly touch on the unprecedented vortex activity. It hopes to provide guidance in the event firefighters come across it in the future in California's worsening firefight.
The safety advice starts: "Move as far away as possible ..."