Jeremy Stoke, a 37-year-old fire inspector at the Redding Fire Department was speeding up Buenaventura Boulevard toward the neighborhoods to assist with the rescues about 7:30 p.m.
But just then, the rotating fire plume took a turn for the worst.
By then, it had morphed into a full-blown “fire tornado,” according to a report released Wednesday by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
It was enormous, 1,000 feet in diameter. It was lifting vehicles and power-line towers and even a steel shipping container off the ground, uprooting tree trunks, destroying any vegetation in its path.
And it was hurtling right toward Stoke at up to 165 miles an hour.
“Mayday!” he yelled into his radio, according to the report.
The Redding Fire Department copied. Stoke said he was stuck in the middle of the road and was “getting burned over.” He needed a water drop, he said.
His fire crew asked, where are you?
There was no response.
On Wednesday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded in a report that Stoke died after becoming “entrapped” in the fire tornado, describing the fire event as “extraordinary.” It lasted for 110 minutes, leaping unpredictably across Redding with temperatures exceeding 2,700 degrees. Stoke’s body was found just east of the roadway in the early morning hours of July 27.
“Regardless of the primary factors that caused the fire tornado,” investigators wrote, “the resultant fire behavior was unpredictable and unusual. It surprised many highly experienced firefighters. The rotating vertical plume appeared and behaved in many aspects like an EF-3 scale tornado.”
At first, experts were stunned by the fiery vortex, and some hesitated to call it a “fire tornado,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. A fire tornado is already a rare event, exceptionally so when it impacts a highly populated area, Neil Lareau, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Nevada at Reno, told the Times. Only a handful of fire tornadoes rivaling the scale of the one in Redding have been recorded, Lareau said.
According to LiveScience, firenadoes form differently from classic twisters, although heat and rotating air feature in both. Fire whirls, as they are typically called, work more like the way “dust devils” start whirling around on the ground on a hot, dry day. But instead of whipping up dirt, fire tornadoes whip up ashes and embers and “flammable debris,” as LiveScience explains it. Most can be classified as “fire whirls” lasting only minutes and rising a few hundred feet in the air. This was a different breed.
“Depending on the final number, this might actually be the strongest ‘tornado’ in California history, even if it wasn’t formally a tornado,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told the Los Angeles Times. He said that although EF-3 tornadoes have swept through California in the past, “this fire whirl was almost certainly longer-lived, larger in spatial scope and perhaps even stronger from a wind speed perspective.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report also described the experiences of three bulldozer drivers in the vicinity of the fire tornado, as well as another bulldozer driver who died in the blaze that day in a different location.
Don Ray Smith had traveled more than 200 miles from Pollock Pines to help out in Redding as a Cal Fire contractor, the Mercury News reported. According to the report, he was trapped on a pathway in his bulldozer near the Buckeye Water Treatment Plant when the flames enveloped him. He was 81.
The three bulldozer drivers impacted by the fire tornado were headed north on Buenaventura Boulevard about 8 p.m. when “all three were violently impacted by flying debris, rocks, embers, smoke, and intense heat,” investigators wrote in the report.
All of their windows shattered. One man was hit in the eyes with shards of glass. Another became disoriented and struck a civilian vehicle stopped on the side of the road. Some of the drivers suffered minor burns, the report noted.
Stoke, the firefighter who died in the fire tornado, left behind a wife and two children. He was a Little League coach and a Relay for Life volunteer, a lover of punk rock and craft beer and known to his fellow firefighters as the guy with the “crazy tattoos” whom everyone loved, colleagues said during a memorial service.
“Nothing prepares a fire chief for the report of a missing firefighter,” Interim Fire Chief Cullen Kreider said during the memorial.
“Jeremy answered the call to respond, like he has 100 times before, to a fire about to impact our city,” he said. “In the face of a huge fire front, he went to work, and I know lives were saved because of his actions.”
Stoke is one of eight people who lost their lives to the wildfire, including a 70-year-old woman and her two great-grandchildren, who also died on July 26. The Carr wildfire has destroyed 214,000 acres and 1,077 residences, the Mercury News reported. It is considered among the most destructive wildfires in California history.