911 call from entrapped dozer operator: “Don’t risk anybody’s life for mine”

(Published at 8:30 a.m. PDT October 22, 2018)

During the Carr Fire earlier this year at Redding, California a dozer operator entrapped by the rapidly spreading fire told a 911 operator, “Don’t risk anybody’s life for mine”.

The Redding Searchlight obtained the recording of the July 26 call in which the dozer operator said there were two other dozers with him and, “There’s a CAL FIRE pickup just exploded right in front of me. I think the guy didn’t get out.”

“I don’t know if the two guys behind me are alive,” the man told a dispatcher, possibly referring to the other two dozers working with him.

There were two deaths that day on the Carr Fire, but the 911 caller who identified himself as “Don”, was not one of them. Redding Fire Department Inspector Jeremy Stoke was burned over in his truck on Buenaventura Boulevard, not far from the location of the caller. On the other side of the Sacramento River, the west side, Don Ray Smith was entrapped and killed in another dozer.

The caller said the windows in his dozer had been blown out and he had lowered his curtains, referring to the drop-down curtains made of fire shelter material that can reduce the amount of radiant heat entering the cab.

Below are excerpts from an article at the Redding Searchlight:

“Don’t risk anybody’s life for mine, but as soon as it lays down…” he trails off in a 911 call obtained by the Record Searchlight on Friday in response to a California Public Records Act request. “As soon as it lays down, send somebody for me, please?”

“I’m in a dozer. All the windows got blown out. I got my curtains down,” he starts off telling the dispatcher.

“OK, sir, I need you to get out of there,” she tells him with urgency.

He’s still calm as he tells her the horrifying truth.

“I can’t.”

‘I don’t know how long I can last’

According to a Green Sheet report by CAL FIRE, the conditions that resulted in the entrapment of the three dozers and the Redding Fire Department Fire Inspector that day were due to a fire tornado — a large rotating fire plume that was roughly 1,000 feet in diameter. The winds at the base were 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. Multiple fire vehicles had their windows blown out and their bodies damaged by flying debris.

The strong winds caused the fire to burn all live vegetation less than 1 inch in diameter. Peak temperatures likely exceeded 2,700 °F.

The conditions described by the 911 caller, including his location and the fact that he was with two other dozers, are consistent with the section of the Green Sheet report describing the entrapment of  three pieces of equipment identified in the document as Dozer 2, Dozer 3 and Dozer 4. Wildfire Today covered this report on August 20. Below is an excerpt from the section about the three dozers:

(From pages 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.

Carr Fire fatality report
From the CAL FIRE Green Sheet Report.

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.Carr Fire fatality report

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.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.