Above: Fire tornado filmed by the Helicopter Coordinator on the Carr Fire July 26, 2018 near Redding, California. The video can be seen HERE.
A “Green Sheet” report on the two firefighter fatalities that occurred July 26, 2018 on the Carr Fire was released this week. Extreme fire behavior during a two-hour period led to a Redding Fire Inspector (FPI1) and a dozer operator (Dozer 1) being overrun by the fire and killed. The report concluded that FPI1, “suffered fatal traumatic injuries when entrapped in a fire tornado while engaged in community protection operations. Dozer 1 suffered fatal thermal injuries while he was improving fireline”, but the report did not say the entrapment was related to the fire tornado.
At times the media or the general public loosely throws around the term “fire tornado”, giving the name to fairly common much smaller fire whirls. But documented fire tornados are much larger, and usually a very destructive weather-induced fire phenomenon.
Below are excerpts from the Green Sheet report:
A large fire tornado was one of the primary causes of the entrapment and death of FPI1 on July 26, 2018. The fire tornado was a large rotating fire plume that was roughly 1000 feet in diameter at its base. Winds at the base of the fire tornado reached speeds in the range of 136-165 mph (EF-3 tornado strength), as indicated by wind damage to large oak trees, scouring of the ground surface, damage to roofs of houses, and lofting of large steel power line support towers, vehicles, and a steel marine shipping container within ½ mile of the entrapment site. The strong winds caused the fire to burn all live vegetation less than 1 inch in diameter and fully consume any dead biomass. Peak gas temperatures likely exceeded 2,700 °F.
Current understanding of how large fire tornados form and propagate suggests that necessary factors include high energy release rates, sources of vorticity (rotating air), and low to moderate general winds. All of these factors were present in the area of Buenaventura Boulevard on July 26. Observations from witnesses and other evidence suggest that either several fire tornados occurred at different locations and times, or one fire tornado formed and then periodically weakened and strengthened causing several separate damage areas.
(From page 8-9; Dozer 1 was improving a dozer line toward Spring Creek Reservoir)
At approximately 5:44 p.m., the fire jumped the top of the dozer line near the access road (picture 2). Multiple spot fires became established in the area. Approximately two minutes later, CREW1 Leader returned to the water treatment plant and asked where Dozer 1 was located. CREW1 Leader was told that Dozer 1 had proceeded down the dozer line. CREW1 Leader made several attempts over the radio to contact Dozer 1 in order to tell him to “get out of there”.
Two firefighters from a local government engine strike team were positioned near the top of the dozer line and recognized the urgency of the situation. They attempted to chase Dozer 1 on foot, but were unable to make access due to increasing fire activity.
CREW1 Leader was finally able to establish radio contact with Dozer 1. Dozer 1 stated he could not get out because he was cut off by the fire, and he would push down instead. Sometime between 5:46 p.m. and 5:50 p.m., radio traffic was heard from Dozer 1 that he was on a bench attempting to make a safety zone. Dozer 1 was also requesting water drops.
At approximately 5:50 p.m., a CAL FIRE Helicopter (Copter 1) began making numerous water drops through the smoke in and around Dozer 1’s last known location. Copter 1 notified the Helicopter Coordinator (HLCO) of Dozer 1’s situation, and HLCO assigned three more helicopters to drop water in the area. HLCO noticed a dramatic increase in fire behavior; however, the helicopters continued to make water drops as conditions worsened. At approximately 6:08 p.m., Copter 1 was forced to land due to a temperature warning light resulting from the high atmospheric temperatures. Approximately 30 minutes later, Copter 1 returned to service and continued to drop water on Dozer 1’s location.
CREW1 Leader attempted to contact Dozer 1 several more times on the radio without a response. Due to increased fire activity, CREW1 Leader and a CAL FIRE Engine Strike Team Leader (STEN1) exited the area to the east. At approximately 6:10 p.m., CREW1 Leader and STEN1 had a face-to-face meeting with DIVS V and advised the Division Supervisor of the burn over. At approximately 6:13 p.m., DIVS V advised Branch III of the burn over.
(From page 11-12)
At approximately 7:35 p.m., the fire burned into Stanford Hills and Land Park. At approximately 7:38 p.m., a CAL FIRE Prevention Captain (PREV1) observed a fire tornado near Buenaventura Boulevard looking north from Land Park. One minute later, Dozer 2, Dozer 3 and Dozer 4, who were located just north of Land Park, used cut banks on Buenaventura Boulevard as temporary shelter from the fire front.
At approximately 7:39 p.m., FPI1 was driving south on Buenaventura Boulevard toward Land Park. At 7:40 p.m., FPI1 radioed a ‘mayday’ on a Redding FD 800 Mhz frequency. FPI1 identified himself by his radio call sign, and stated that he needed a water drop and was getting burned over. This was immediately followed by a second ‘priority traffic’ transmission by FPI1 on Redding FD Tac 1 (VHF). FPI1 stated he was in the middle of the road, was getting burned over, and needed a water drop.
The crew on ENG4, as well as other Redding Fire Department personnel, heard the priority traffic call from FPI1. ENG4 Captain called FPI1 on Tac Net in order to determine FPI1’s location. There was no response.
ENG4 Captain exited the fire engine and faced-to-faced with BC1. ENG4 Captain confirmed with BC1 that he heard FPI1’s priority radio traffic. Since FPI1’s location was unknown, Shasta Communications (SHASCOM) worked to locate him by ‘pinging’ his cell phone.
(In the very early morning hours of June 27, 2018, FPI1 was located east of Buenaventura Boulevard by Redding Fire Department personnel.)
(From page 13-14)
At approximately 8:02 p.m., Dozer 2, Dozer 3 and Dozer 4 continued northbound on Buenaventura Boulevard toward Keswick Dam Road. Approximately one-half of a mile from Land Park, all three dozers were violently impacted by flying debris, rocks, embers, smoke, and intense heat. The flying material shattered windows on all three dozers. As hot air entered the cab of Dozer 2, the operator repositioned the dozer and parked next to Dozer 3. When Dozer 3’s windows shattered, airborne glass entered the operator’s eyes. Dozer 3 stopped on Buenaventura Boulevard and deployed his fire curtains.
Dozer 4 became disoriented when impacted by the flying debris. As a result, the dozer hit a civilian vehicle that was stopped along Buenaventura Boulevard. The impact caused the dozer operator to land on the floor of his cab. The dozer continued to travel until it came to rest against a tree. Once stopped, the operator tried to drop the fire curtains. Due to burn injuries on his hands, he was unable to manipulate the straps, and had to cut the straps with a razor knife to deploy the curtains. He successfully dropped three out of the four curtains. The operator then deployed a fire shelter. In order to escape the intense heat, he exited the cab and sought refuge under the dozer, but saw a tree blocking his route. When the dozer operator reentered the cab, he saw emergency vehicle lights on Buenaventura Boulevard. He ran up to the vehicle where PREV1 directed him into the backseat. Once in the pickup truck, the dozer operator noticed there was also a civilian in the vehicle.
Prior to the rescue of the Dozer 4 operator, at approximately 8:01 p.m., PREV1 and SUP1 exited north on Buenaventura Boulevard from Land Park and Stanford Hills. SUP1 was now travelling back out of the subdivision with the evacuated family members.
Both PREV1 and SUP1 drove slowly, due to the heavy smoke conditions. Both vehicles were in close proximity to each other. As they approached the general area where the three dozers were stopped, PREV1 saw a civilian vehicle on fire. SUP1 passed PREV1 as he slowed to a stop. SUP1 continued north approximately 150 feet when both of their pickup trucks were suddenly impacted by flying debris, rocks and embers.
SUP1’s vehicle began to shake violently, and the passenger windows shattered. SUP1 ducked down to avoid being hit by flying debris and he momentarily drove off the road. SUP1 regained control of his vehicle, drove back onto the road, and exited the area to the north.
As PREV1 slowly approached the burning vehicle, he felt his pickup truck get “pushed” from the west. All the windows in his pickup truck except the windshield shattered. PREV1 took refuge in his vehicle. Approximately 30 seconds later PREV1 observed a male civilian attempting to get in his pickup truck. PREV1 directed the civilian to get in the back seat. Moments later, PREV1 saw a second individual (Dozer 4 operator) running toward him wrapped in a fire shelter. PREV1 directed the dozer operator into the back seat. PREV1 asked if they were injured. The dozer operator indicated that his hands were burned. PREV1 notified Redding ECC that he had a burn victim.