Retired police officer describes how he survived fire tornado at Carr Fire

carr fire tornado redding california
Steve Bustillos tells his story of surviving the Carr Fire. Screengrab from KRCR video.

KRCR has the story of how a retired police officer in Redding, California who was trapped in the Carr Fire survived the same fire tornado that killed a Redding firefighter.

As the fire approached, Steve Bustillos was driving away from his home with his most important possessions in the back of his truck when the strong winds and debris broke a window in his vehicle allowing burning embers to blow inside the cab. He turned around to see that everything in the bed of the pickup was on fire, then the seats in the cab ignited.

He told the reporter, “The truck is moving and I’ve got both feet planted on the brake pedal and the truck is literally starting to lift itself up off the ground.”

CAL FIRE issued a Green Sheet report about the incident which included this information about the fire tornado that entrapped Mr. Bustillos.

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.

Report concludes fire tornado with 136+ mph winds contributed to a fatality on Carr Fire

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. tornado Fujita scaleWinds 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.Carr Fire fatality report

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Firefighters conducting very large backfiring operation at the Carr Fire

The Carr Fire has burned over 186,000 acres west and northwest of Redding, California

map Carr Fire california
The red line shows the perimeter of the Carr Fire at 10:16 p.m. PDT August 10, 2018. The white line was the perimeter two days before. The beginning of the burnout can be seen at the north end of the fire. Click to enlarge.

Above: Map of the Carr Fire, August 11, 2018.

(Originally published at noon PDT August 11, 2018)

Firefighters have decided to use a bold tactic to stop the northern spread of the Carr Fire in California. Since it started from a burning vehicle near Redding on July 23 it has burned over 186,000 acres in an area about 27 miles long by 19 miles wide.

(To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Carr Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.)

The tactic they selected a couple of days ago was to go approximately five miles north of the fire and backfire, igniting ahead of the main fire hoping that eliminating burnable fuel will stop the main fire when it reaches the backfire. This is taking place along a 12-mile stretch at the northwest part of Shasta Lake near Moist Cove working to the northwest, roughly following Road N7601 and dozer lines they are constructing. Then they make a left turn south for another five miles to tie in with the main fire east of Trinity Lake.

If crews can get the backfire to consume the fuel for at least several hundred yards (more is better) toward the main fire, they will have a pretty good chance of success.

Backing off from the fire, WAY OFF, and removing the fuel by burning it, usually from a ridge, has often worked very well. Sometimes firefighters ignite a backfire from the next ridge ahead of the fire, which may not provide enough time to complete it to the point where it will be effective. The late Rick Gale, who over several decades fought some of the largest wildland fires as a Type 1 Incident Commander and Area Commander, would say, “Don’t choose the NEXT RIDGE, choose the BEST RIDGE”, even if it is miles away.

If the north end does not move any further, the backfire would encompass approximately 40,000 acres, roughly 12 miles by 5 miles in size.

The Carr Fire has been spreading more slowly in recent days. It has been fairly quiet around Redding, but has continued to grow on the northeast and southwest sides.

Resources assigned to the fire include 335 fire engines, 76 hand crews, 12 helicopters, 112 dozers, and 125 water tenders for a total of 4,665 personnel.

According to CAL FIRE, 1,077 residences and 22 commercial structures have been destroyed in the fire. Three people working on the fire have been killed, including two firefighters and one CAL FIRE heavy equipment mechanic.

A Red Flag Warning is in effect Saturday for high temperatures, low humidity, and gusty winds.

Below: The California Air National Guard shot this video from the cockpit of one of their Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130’s as it dropped retardant on the Carr Fire in Northern California July 31, 2018.

CAL FIRE employee killed on the Carr Fire in Northern California

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, announced that a heavy equipment mechanic for the agency was killed while assigned to the Carr Fire near Redding, California. Andrew Jason Brake died August 9 due to a single vehicle accident while assigned to the fire that has burned 177,000 acres west of the city.

From the Sacramento Bee:

Brake was headed north on 99, just south of Tehama Vina Road in Tehama, when the road made a slight curve to the left, California Highway Patrol officer Ken Reineman said. Brake “failed to maintain his path,” drifted off the road to the right and hit a tree. His vehicle, believed to be a pickup truck, was engulfed in flames, Reineman said. Brake died in the vehicle fire, Reineman said. The crash occurred at 12:17 a.m., he added.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Brake’s family, friends, and co-workers.

Four other agency employees or contractors have died in the line of duty in the last month while working on wildfires in California:

–Don Ray Smith, contract dozer operator, of Pollock Pines, CA, on the Carr Fire July 26.
–Redding fire Inspector Jeremy Stoke, Fire Inspector for the Redding, CA Fire department, on the Carr Fire July 26.
–Brian Hughes, Captain on National Park Service Arrowhead Hotshots, Ferguson Fire, July 29.
–Braden Varney, CAL FIRE Heavy Fire Equipment Operator, July 14, Ferguson Fire.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom and Paula.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

California fires as seen from the Space Station

Astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted these photos on August 3 of the wildfires in California, apparently taken from the International Space Station. He didn’t specify the date, but presumably they are very recent.

I’m not positive, but I think the photo that has multiple fires includes, from bottom to top (south to north), the Ferguson Fire at Yosemite National Park, the Mendocino Complex east of Ukiah, and the Carr Fire at Redding. The smoke farther north could be the Natchez Fire and blazes in Oregon.  The other photo is most likely the Ferguson Fire.

Click on the images twice to see larger versions.

Carr Fire: threat to Lewiston increases, Redding area improves

The fire has destroyed 1,018 residences near Redding, California

(UPDATED AT 8:54 a.m. PDT August 1, 2018)

Tuesday the Carr Fire, west of Redding, California, was active on the southwest, west, and north sides, to bring the total blackened acres up to 121,000, according to a mapping flight Tuesday night.

CAL FIRE has updated the number of structures impacted by the fire. Destroyed were 1,018 residences, 12 commercial structures, and 435 outbuildings. Buildings damaged included 181 residences, 6 commercial structures and 61 outbuildings.

map carr fire redding california
Map showing the perimeter of the Carr Fire, the red line, at 11:15 p.m. PDT July 31, 2018. The white line was the perimeter 27 hours before. Click to enlarge.

To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Carr Fire, including the most recent, click here.


(Originally published at noon PDT July 31, 2018)

Firefighters have made a great deal of progress on the Carr Fire, resulting in no appreciable growth during the last two days within seven miles of the west edge of Redding.

On Sunday and Monday the west side of the fire saw significant expansion from the area west of Shasta Bally Road going clockwise around the west and north sides to a point 4 miles west of Shasta Lake. The fire is 3 miles east of Trinity Lake and 4 miles east of Lewiston. At a Tuesday morning briefing officials said there is “a direct threat to Lewiston”. CAL FIRE is calling it 110,154 acres.

map carr fire
Map showing the perimeter of the Carr Fire at 8:30 p.m. PDT July 30, 2018. The white line was the perimeter two days before. Click to enlarge.

According to the latest information, the number of structures destroyed includes 884 residences, 4 commercial structures, and 348 outbuildings. At least 2,546 remain threatened.

map structures destroyed carr fire redding california
To see an interactive, zoomable CAL FIRE map showing the locations of destroyed and damaged structures on the Carr Fire, CLICK HERE.

The Sheriff’s office confirmed that another fatality has been found on the Carr Fire, bringing the total up to six. The latest was a 60-year old man who recently had heart surgery. Other deaths include two firefighters, and a great grandmother and two grandchildren she was caring for. Another seven people have been reported missing.

Many areas have been repopulated, but others are still under evacuation orders.

Helicopters and air tankers have been prevented at times from dropping water and retardant on the fire by an inversion that traps smoke, at times decreasing the visibility to a point where it is unsafe for the aircraft to fly as required, low and slow over complex terrain.

Resources assigned to the fire include 334 fire engines, 59 hand crews, 17 helicopters, 68 dozers, and 65 water tenders, for a total of 3,607 personnel.