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Video shows monster 265km/h fire tornado, the size of three football fields, that killed California firefighter

‘It was something out of this world … It was incompatible with life, and he happened to drive into it’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2018, 9:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 August, 2018, 9:38am

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

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

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 400km north of San Francisco.

The smoke-and-fire tornado was about 300 metres wide at its base and reached 12km into the sky; it reached speeds of up to 265km/h, with temperatures that likely exceeded 1,480 degrees Celsius, 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 on 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 per cent 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.”

The 37-year-old fire inspector was driving his pickup truck down a Redding road, working on evacuating people from the larger blaze, when he radioed out a “mayday” call, according to the report.

Stoke said he “needed a water drop and was getting burned over,” the report said.

Then Stoke’s transmissions abruptly stopped.

An engine captain who heard the call asked for Stoke’s location. There was no response.

Fire dispatchers tried to locate him by ‘pinging’ his cellphone.

Stoke’s remains were not found until the next day, and it took more time to analyse the ferocity of the tornado that ripped roofs off houses and flung power line towers, cars and a shipping container into the air near the spot where Stoke was overtaken by the flames, according to the report.

A confluence of weather conditions likely contributed to the tornado, including a combination of record heat in the Sacramento Valley – it reached 45 degrees Celsius in Redding that day – and cool high-speed winds coming from the coast, the report said.

“It was something out of this world, a perfect storm,” Gary Parmely, who was Stoke’s stepfather and raised him from the time he was a child, said Thursday. “It was incompatible with life, and he happened to drive into it.”

Parmely said he has driven out several times to the site where Stoke died. American flags, flowers and a framed picture of Stoke have been left in memoriam.

“The loss of Jeremy broke the heart of this community, not just his family,” Parmely said. Stoke leaves behind a wife and two children. Stoke was on vacation with his best friend in Idaho but cut the trip short, Parmely said.