An immense swirling flame of destruction descended on Northern California as part of this summer’s destructive wildfires, according to state officials who this week unveiled video footage of the deadly fire tornado.
“There have been several documented instances of a fire whirl in California,” said Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire battalion chief, according to CBS News. “But this is the largest documented fire whirl — a fire-generated tornado — in California history.”
The flames surrounded and killed Redding, California, firefighter Jeremy Stoke, 37, as he tried to evacuate residents.
The smoke-and-fire tornado covered about 1,000 feet of ground as it raced through the drylands about 200 miles north of San Francisco, according to a report by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, NBC News reported.
The report said the blazing behemoth rose about 7.5 miles into the sky and reached speeds of up to 165 mph with temperatures that probably topped 2,700 degrees.
“The swirling winds at the base of the plume dramatically increased fire intensity. The rotating plume continued to intensify until it developed into a fire tornado,” the report said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Winds dramatically increased near the fire tornado, and embers were lofted in many directions.”
The report said that based on the evidence left behind, there may have been more than one fire tornado.
“Observations from witnesses and other evidence suggest that either several fire tornadoes occurred at different locations and times, or one fire tornado formed and then periodically weakened and strengthened causing several separate damage areas,” the report said, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
A record-breaking fire tornado measuring 1,000 feet wide killed a Northern California firefighter who ended his vacation early to battle the blaze. Story: https://t.co/jMBNw0d49o pic.twitter.com/x0xtJrpUWq
— AP West Region (@APWestRegion) August 16, 2018
“It was something out of this world, a perfect storm,” Gary Parmely, Stoke’s stepfather, said. “It was incompatible with life, and he happened to drive into it.”
Videos showed the force of the deadly tornado.
“You can clearly see the winds going like this and the circulations right here. It’s an incredible sight,” said Craig Clements, director of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Research Lab.
The fire that spawned the fire tornado began on July 23. Officials blamed its origin on sparks from a vehicle driving on a flat tire. The blaze has been responsible for killing eight people and destroying nearly 1,000 homes.
— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) August 16, 2018
Stoke had been dispatched to evacuate residents in one populated area, and at 7:40 p.m. radioed that he “needed a water drop and was getting burned over,” the report said. He said he was in the middle of a roadway. When another firefighter asked for the location, there was no answer.
Stoke’s body was found the next day.
“It’s pretty chilling when you look at the narrative,” said Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire battalion chief. “How quickly this tornado went from being dangerous to being just extreme and overwhelming was astounding. It’s something we’ve never seen before.”
Parmely said area residents have placed flags and flowers at the site where Stoke died.
“The loss of Jeremy broke the heart of this community, not just his family,” he said, adding that Stoke had been on vacation when the fire broke out. “He came back early to help fight this fire.”
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