SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A firefighter who died while helping people evacuate a Northern California blaze was killed by a fire tornado that at one point reached a temperature of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,480 degrees Celsius), officials said.
Redding firefighter Jeremy Stoke died after he was enveloped in seconds by a fire tornado with a diameter of 1,000 feet (300 meters) and winds up to 165 mph (265 kph), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a report released Wednesday detailing his death and the death of a bulldozer operator.
Videos released with the report show the massive blaze burning in a populated area and sending a cloud of thick smoke up into the air with flames swirling up into the sky.
The tornado 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.
Cal Fire officials said that on July 26, the 37-year-old fire inspector was driving his pickup truck down a Redding road, working on evacuating people. One minute later he radioed out a "mayday" call saying he was getting burned and needed help.
Stoke "identified himself by his radio call sign, and stated that he needed a water drop and was getting burned over," the report said.
When an engine captain tried to contact him shortly after, there was no response, it said.
"Observations from witnesses and other evidence suggest that either several fire tornadoes occurred at different locations and times, or one fire tornado formed and then periodically weakened and strengthened causing several separate damage areas," the report said.
Stoke, whose remains were found the following day, was one of eight people killed since the blaze started on July 23 with a spark from a vehicle driving on a flat tire.
The wildfire has destroyed nearly 1,100 homes. It was 71 percent contained as of Thursday.
The report also detailed the death of private bulldozer operator Don Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines, who was killed when his bulldozer was caught in the flames while trying to improve a fire line, defending a home during what the officials say were "extraordinary fire weather conditions."
Both deaths and the injuries occurred within an hour and 50 minutes in one 3-mile (5-kilometer) stretch.
Smith was trying to improve a previously constructed a fire line near the Buckeye Water Treatment Plant outside Redding after 5 p.m. on July 26 when other firefighters noticed "a rapid increase in fire activity."
It jumped the fire line and a Cal Fire crew chief said he made several radio attempts to tell Smith to "get out of there." Two firefighters in the area also "recognized the urgency of the situation" and tried to reach Smith on foot but had to turn back because of the encroaching flames.
Smith reported that he was cut off by the fire and was pushing on in his 2002 John Deere open cab bulldozer in an attempt to reach a safe area. He also requested water drops and four helicopters began dropping water through the smoke and flames around Smith's last known location.
Once the smoke cleared, a pilot saw that Smith's dozer had been engulfed in flames and there was no sign of the protective metallic tent that firefighters deploy as a desperate measure when they are about to be overrun by fire. After two attempts, a fire captain was able to reach the bulldozer two hours later and confirmed that Smith was dead.