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California firefighter was trapped, killed by 1,000-foot-wide fire tornado

Posted at 4:47 PM, Aug 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-17 10:08:05-04

REDDING, Calif. – A massive fire tornado spawned during the Carr Fire trapped and killed a firefighter while decimating a swath of Redding, California, on July 26, according to a new report detailing the horrific incident.

The fire whirl struck around 7:30 p.m., reaching speeds up to 165 mph -- the equivalent strength of an EF-3 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, according to an 18-page Cal Fire report.

It was approximately 1,000 feet in diameter at its base; the interior temperature peaked in excess of 2,700 degrees.

“Depending on the final number, this might actually be the strongest ‘tornado’ in California history, even if it wasn’t formally a tornado,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.

The tornado came as the Carr Fire towered over Redding, with a fire plume reaching some 40,000 feet in height, the report stated.

A survey of the area in the aftermath revealed a trail of damaged homes, trees, vehicles and a steel marine shipping container, according to Cal Fire. It also destroyed much of the live vegetation while consuming any dead biomass.

The fire tornado was captured in two separate videos released by Cal Fire: one was shot from a helicopter showing the massive inferno as it swirled over Lake Keswick Estates; the second was taken from a fire engine in the area of Buenaventura Boulevard and Sutro Mine Road, in the Stanford Hills Subdivision.

It began developing just before 7:30 p.m., when officials began noticing a "large rotating plume of smoke" north of Land Park near Buenaventura Boulevard, according to the report.

"The rotating plume continued to intensify until it developed into a fire tornado. Winds dramatically increased near the fire tornado, and embers were lofted in many directions," the report stated. "The fire front exhibited erratic and rapid growth during this period."

It was around this time that Jeremy Stoke, a Redding Fire Department fire inspector, was driving down Buenaventura Boulevard toward Land Park.

At 7:40 p.m., Stoke radioed a "Mayday" call, saying he "was getting burned over" and was in need of a water drop. He made a second "priority traffic" call, providing the same information, the report read.

But by the time someone responded to the call, wanting to know of Stoke's whereabouts, he was unresponsive.

Redding fire personnel found him dead early the following morning while searching an area east of Buenaventura.

Authorities determined Stoke "suffered fatal traumatic injuries" upon becoming entrapped in the fire whirl. He was working to protect the community at the time.

Stoke had returned to work earlier that day due to the fire, conducting welfare checks in the area of Salt Creek Heights, which is in the western part of Redding, according to the report.

He was one of eight people to die in the blaze.

Since erupting on July 23, the fire has charred about 334 square miles, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and damaged nearly 200 others. It was 71 percent contained as of Thursday morning.

Correction: An earlier version of this article, including the headline, described the tornado as 40,000 feet in height. In the Cal Fire report, that approximate measurement refers to a "large fire plume (that) developed over the area," not the tornado specifically. The story has been updated.