Record-breaking fire tornado killed firefighter


Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO

In the history of California wildfires, there has never been anything like it: a churning tornado filled with fire, the size of three football fields.

An official report describes in chilling detail the intensity of the rare fire phenomenon and how quickly it took the life of Redding firefighter Jeremy Stoke, who was enveloped in seconds as he tried to evacuate residents July 26.

Three videos released with the report late Wednesday show the massive funnel of smoke and flames in a populated area on the edge of Redding, about 250 miles north of San Francisco.

The smoke-and-fire tornado was about 1,000 feet wide at its base and shot approximately 7.5 miles into the sky; it reached speeds of up to 165 mph, with temperatures that likely exceeded 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, said the report by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The tornado exploded in the middle of what was already a gigantic, devastating wildfire that started July 23 with a spark from a vehicle driving on a flat tire. Stoke is one of eight people killed since the blaze started and destroyed nearly 1,100 homes. It was 71 percent contained as of Thursday.

A 17-year veteran of the fire department, Stoke was familiar with the dangers of wildfires. But this was unprecedented.

“There have been several documented instances of a fire whirl in California,” said Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire battalion chief. “But this is the largest documented fire whirl – a fire-generated tornado – in California history.”

A confluence of weather conditions likely contributed to the tornado, including a combination of record heat in the Sacramento Valley – it reached 113 degrees Fahrenheit in Redding that day – and cool high-speed winds coming from the coast, the report said.

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