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New Horrifying Details Released About Fire Tornado That Killed California Firefighter

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The rare, apocalyptic fire tornado that ravaged a Northern California neighborhood last month trapped and killed a firefighter while “violently” flinging debris and embers at two bulldozer operators, according to new details released on the stunning fire event.

The fire tornado — which was about 1,000 feet in diameter with winds as fast as 165 miles per hour — was responsible for the death of 37-year-old Redding, Calif., fire inspector Jeremy Stoke, according to a report from California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) released this week. It detailed what happened during and after the unusual fire tornado that tore through Shasta County, Calif., in the early days of the destructive Carr fire, which sparked July 23 and is still burning.

Before his death, Stoke was driving down one of the only roads used to evacuate the area to check on the homes and residents threatened by the fast-moving fire when it drew near. He radioed “mayday” to the Redding Fire Department, saying he needed a helicopter to drop water on the area he was in. Then the fire tornado overtook him, the report says.

But Stoke wasn’t the only firefighter caught in harms way. Two bulldozer operators were working along the same road when, about 20 minutes after Stoke’s radio call, they were “violently impacted by flying debris, rocks, embers, smoke and intense heat” from the fire tornado, according to the report. The windows to all three of the dozers shattered, and glass shot into one of their eyes. Another operator suffered burns on his hands and had to use a razor knife to cut the strap that held his fire curtain.

The horrifying details of the deaths and injuries incurred by the fire tornado provide insights into what had typically been an anecdotal phenomenon amongst fire ecologists, scientists and firefighters. Extreme conditions and intense heat fueled the rotating plume, which reached 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit at its peak, according to Cal Fire. It had reached EF-3 tornado strength on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, causing severe damage to the area it consumed, according to Cal Fire. It launched power line support towers, cars and a shipping container into the air, and burned all living vegetation that was less than 1 inch in diameter.

Craig Clements, an associate professor at San José State University whose Fire Weather Research Laboratory, was part of the team that surveyed the aftermath of the rare fire event. He told TIME in early August that it was unlike anything he had ever seen.

“It was completely decimated,” Clements said at the time. “Not a living branch for kilometers.”

The deadly Carr fire in Northern California — one of the largest fires in state history — has scorched through 214,527 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes since it started about three weeks ago. The Carr fire, which is now 71% contained, has killed seven people, including three firefighters and a great-grandmother and her two great-grandchildren. The report released this week by Cal Fire also detailed the circumstances surrounding the death of contract bulldozer operator Don Ray Smith. He was building containment lines for the fire when it grew more aggressive and burned over his machinery.

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