Fires

‘Mayday!’ New details explain how Carr Fire killed two on front lines of fire tornado

Newly released footage shows ‘fire tornado’ that killed California firefighter

Newly released footage from California officials shows what they called a “fire tornado” burning in Redding as the Carr Fire entered the city on July 26, resulting in the death of one firefighter.
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Newly released footage from California officials shows what they called a “fire tornado” burning in Redding as the Carr Fire entered the city on July 26, resulting in the death of one firefighter.

Pinned down by a vicious “fire tornado,” Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke radioed “Mayday” and called for helicopters to drop water on the neighborhood where he was trapped.

His body was found the next morning.

A “Green Sheet” preliminary investigative report released Wednesday by Cal Fire provides dramatic details of how the Carr Fire in Redding claimed its first two victims: Stoke, 37, and private bulldozer operator Don Ray Smith, 81, who was helping to dig trenches in an effort to contain the blaze. A total of eight deaths have been blamed on the fire, which burned 214,527 acres and was 71 percent contained Thursday.

Stoke and Smith died the evening of July 26, three days after the fire started. That night, Cal Fire officials noticed a phenomenon known as a fire tornado was bearing down on Redding. A perfect storm of heat (a city record 113 degrees) and wind turned a portion of the fire into its own weather system, “a large rotating fire plume that was roughly 1,000 feet in diameter at its base,” according to the Cal Fire report.

Winds inside the tornado got as high as 165 mph and temperatures likely topped 2,700 degrees, Cal Fire said.

Stoke, driving a Ford F-150 pickup, wound up in the middle of it. Earlier in the day, he had been conducting welfare checks on neighborhoods affected by the fire. At 7:39 p.m., he headed south on Buenaventura Boulevard in west Redding. A minute later Stoke, identified in the report as FPI1, issued the distress call and said “he was in the middle of the road, was getting burned over, and needed a water drop,” the report said.

The report makes no mention of helicopter crews being able to drop water on the neighborhood. An engine crew from the Redding Fire Department tried to call him but got no response. His exact location was unknown and Shasta County communications officials tried finding him by pinging his cellphone. Stoke’s body was found early July 27 somewhere east of Buenaventura Boulevard.

The Cal Fire report provides details on the chaos and danger firefighters encountered as the tornado whipped through the west side of Redding, lifting vehicles and even power transmission towers off the ground.

Three unidentified bulldozer operators heading north on Buenaventura Boulevard were injured as flying debris shattered windows on their equipment, with one driver getting glass in his eyes. Another driver, disoriented when his vehicle was hit, rammed into a resident’s car; the bulldozer didn’t stop until it hit a tree.

Smith, the private bulldozer operator, was part of a separate contingent under Cal Fire’s direction that was dispatched to improve trenches that evening near Spring Creek Reservoir, about halfway between Redding and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, where the fire originated west of the city.

A crew leader warned Smith, identified in the report as Dozer 1, “not to proceed down the dozer line if it was unsafe or if Dozer 1 was uncomfortable with the assignment.”

At 5:44 p.m., the fire jumped the trench line and the crew leader tried to contact Smith by radio to “get out of there.” Two nearby firefighters “recognized the urgency of the situation” and tried to chase Smith on foot but were beaten back by the spreading fire. The crew leader finally got ahold of Smith by radio, but the bulldozer operator said “he could not get out because he was cut off by the fire.”

A few minutes later, a Cal Fire helicopter “began making numerous water drops through the smoke in and around Dozer 1’s last known location.” But at 7 p.m., a fire captain was able to make it to the scene and “confirmed that the dozer operator suffered fatal injuries during the burn over.”

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