A Cal Fire report on deaths and injuries suffered last month when a wildland blaze rampaged into the outskirts of Redding depicts a scene in which one group of firefighters after another was overtaken by a wind-driven inferno that climaxed in a deadly fire tornado.
The fire agency Green Sheet issued Wednesday gives a minute-by-minute account of the events July 26 that led to the deaths of Don Ray Smith, 81, a bulldozer operator from Pollock Pines, and Jeremy Stoke, a fire prevention inspector with the Redding Fire Department.
Smith was overtaken by the racing front of the Carr Fire about 5:50 p.m. after being deployed to an already-abandoned dozer line near a water-treatment plant.
Stoke was killed less than two hours later when he drove into the path of the fire tornado, a whirling column of fire, embers, smoke, rocks and debris with winds estimated as high as 165 mph. At its base, the report estimates the tornado was 1,000 feet in diameter.
The report also details the circumstances around a series of close calls that injured three Marin County firefighters — hurt when flames exploded in the vegetation around a home they were trying to save — and two bulldozer operators in the path of the fire tornado.
The Carr Fire, started July 23, by sparks thrown by a trailer with a flat tire, has burned nearly 215,000 acres — about 340 square miles, or about six times the area of San Francisco — and is 69 percent contained. The fire has claimed a total of eight lives, including those of Smith and Stoke.
'Fire Behavior Unpredictable and Unusual'
Wednesday's Green Sheet includes an extended discussion of the weather conditions that preceded the acceleration of the blaze and the fire tornado.
Those conditions on July 26 included record heat — the temperature at Redding Municipal Airport hit 113 degrees, 13 degrees above normal — and humidity in the single digits. For most of the day, however, the wind was calm.
Late in the day, however, gusty northwest winds developed as cool air from the coast was sucked across the Coast Ranges toward a hot low pressure area in the Sacramento Valley. The fire responded nearly instantly to the onset of the higher winds.
"The fire was observed moving 2.5 miles per hour with spot fires becoming established over 1 mile ahead of the main fire front. Additionally, a large fire plume developed over the area, reaching approximately 40,000 feet in height," the report says.
The Green Sheet's description of the fire tornado is in line with earlier estimates of its power, with winds up to 165 mph. But the picture the report paints of damage in the affected area is startling.
The event damaged large oak trees, roofs of houses, large steel power-line support towers, vehicles and a steel marine shipping container.
"The strong winds caused the fire to burn all live vegetation less than 1 inch in diameter and fully consume any dead biomass. Peak gas temperatures likely exceeded 2,700 degrees," the report says.
"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," the report says.
Dozer Driver Cut Off by Fire
The Green Sheet says that Smith, a veteran bulldozer operator, was directed to try to improve a "contingency" line — a sort of fallback fire line — near Spring Creek Reservoir, just west of Redding.
Two dozers had abandoned the line earlier in the day after determining "it would not be viable" because the area near the lake was so steep and overgrown.
Smith started down the dozer line about 5:40 p.m. just as fire in the area intensified, and he was almost immediately cut off by the rapidly advancing flames. The Green Sheet says a crew leader tried to radio Smith to tell him "to get out of there."
Two firefighters near the start of the dozer line tried to chase Smith to tell him to pull back, but they were turned back by the fire.
Smith finally radioed that he couldn't turn back and would try to make it down to the lake. Shortly afterward, he said he was trying to excavate a safety zone and asked for helicopter water drops on his position.
Several drops were made. At 7 p.m., a little more than an hour after his last radio call, a fire captain made it down the dozer line and found Smith dead. Neither the protective fire curtains in the dozer's cab nor his emergency shelter had been deployed.
Close Call for Marin Unit
At 6:45 p.m., a little over a mile to the southeast, firefighters from a Marin County strike set up to defend a home in the community of Keswick.
The Green Sheet says that the three-member crew of a Marin engine company started preparing for a defensive firing operation by removing brush from around a house at George Street and Rock Creek Road and laying a hose line. When they began their work, the crew said they believed the fire was about 1,000 feet away.
After 20 minutes of work, however, the blaze suddenly intensified, with even ornamental plants and the hose covers on their engine igniting. The fire was so hot that the first firefighter to reach the truck suffered burns on his hands when he reached for the door handle. The other two firefighters suffered minor facial burns as they retreated to the truck.
The Green Sheet says the blaze was so intense that the crew was unable to move the fire engine until the fire passed. The injured firefighters received first aid from a nearby Marin engine crew, then were treated at a Redding hospital.
Fire Tornado and Death of Redding Firefighter
At about the same time the Marin firefighters were overcome, crews evacuating residents on the east side of the Sacramento River noticed a "large rotating plume of smoke" to the north, a Buenaventura Boulevard.
"The swirling winds at the base of the plume dramatically increased fire intensity," the Green Sheet says. "The rotating plume continued to intensify until it developed into a fire tornado. Wind dramatically increased near the fire tornado, and embers were lofted in many directions. The fire front exhibited erratic and rapid growth during this period."
Stoke, who worked as a fire prevention inspector for the Redding Fire Department, reportedly cut a vacation short to return to duty after the Carr Fire broke out.
The Green Sheet says Stoke had spent the early part of July 26 conducting welfare checks on residents in the threatened Salt Creek Heights area west of the city.
At about 7:39 p.m., the report says, Stoke was responding to a call for help in a subdivision in southwest Redding and was headed south on Buenaventura Boulevard. A minute later, he radioed a "mayday" call, saying he was in the middle of the road, the fire was burning over him and he needed a helicopter water drop.
When a captain radioed back to determine his location, there was no response, and Stoke was not heard from again. Redding firefighters found Stoke's body the next morning.
The Green Sheet concludes that Stoke's vehicle was engulfed by the fire tornado. It adds that witness statements and other evidence suggests that more than one fire tornado occurred.
Dozer Operators Hurt by Tornado
About 20 minutes after Stoke's last transmission, three bulldozers moving north on Buenaventura were hit by "flying debris, rocks, embers, smoke and intense heat" that blew out the windows on all of the machines.
Two of the dozer operators were hurt: one when shattered glass flew into his eyes, the second when heat from the scorching whirlwind burned his hands.
At about the same time, a Cal Fire supervisor and Cal Fire captain drove north on Buenaventura in separate pickups. As they came to the area where the three bulldozers were parked, they were buffeted by high winds and debris.
The supervisor's "vehicle began to shake violently, and the passenger windows shattered," the report says. "(The supervisor) ducked down to avoid being hit by flying debris and he momentarily drove off the road. SUP1 regained control of his vehicle, drove back onto the road, and exited the area."
Meantime, every window but the windshield shattered on the Cal Fire captain's pickup. But the captain was able to rescue one of the injured dozer drivers and a civilian who was on the road at the scene. The two other dozer operators were rescued by another firefighting vehicle.
Among the lessons learned from the July 26 incidents, the report says: "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."