REDDING (KPIX 5) — Recently released video from Cal Fire shows the most intense tornado ever in California history that trapped and killed a firefighter in Redding last month.
37-year-old Jeremiah “Jeremy” Stoke was a longtime Redding Fire Department veteran. According to Cal fire, on July 26th, he was driving his truck in northwest Redding and helping evacuate residents from the Carr Fire when he got into trouble.
Stoke radioed out a mayday call, saying he was getting burned over. Then his transmissions abruptly stopped.
The fire tornado exploded in the middle of what was already a gigantic and devastating wildfire.
The fire vortex was so unusual, Cal Fire investigators are still struggling to understand it.
While it was not the first documented fire tornado in California – a similar event happened at Coffey Park last October, for instance – but it was certainly the most powerful.
The actual vortex is visible in the video released by Cal Fire.
Even for fire researchers like Craig Clements, the director at the SJSU Fire Weather Research Lab, who had seen fire whirls before, it was an extraordinary event.
“You can clearly see the winds going like this and the circulations right here,” said Clements. “It’s an incredible sight.”
The video released by Cal Fire clearly shows the Carr Fire winds and flames moving in opposite directions forming a massive vortex.
The base of the fire tornado was 1,000 feet — the size of three football fields — with winds ranging from 136 to 165 mph, some of the worst in California history.
Peak temperatures inside the vortex rose as high as 2,700 degrees.
The aftermath left behind by the vortex was captured the next day by KPIX cameras.
Clements stressed the tornadoes themselves are not caused by climate change, though climate change may be contributing to more dry brush and fire fuel resulting in more extreme fire conditions.
Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman notes those conditions are partially a man-made phenomenon.
“There are things we can do. We can go in and mitigate the problem,” said Schapelhouman. “The predictability of what we could say was the norm before is completely out the window.”
He says there’s a need for more off-season controlled burns and vegetation management to help prevent extreme fire events that are becoming more common.
But as fire seasons worsen, Clements says technology is improving and may someday be able to help save lives, detecting fire tornadoes in its earliest stages.
“You can’t predict it, but you could potentially monitor fires with remote-sensing technology,” said Clements.
The SJSU Fire Weather Research Lab has lidar that — similar to how Doppler radar that can track rain and severe weather – can track smoke particles and detect fire vortex formation.
Clements says he can see a future where this technology — which is research grade right now — could be on every fire engine in the field.