150 Minutes Of Hell: A Freak Fire Tornado Lays Waste To The Californian Landscape

Firefighters had never seen anything like it: a fire tornado that would annihilate everything in its path

Published Sep 14, 2019 00:00:00 IST
2019-09-13T22:23:02+05:30
150 Minutes Of Hell: A Freak Fire Tornado Lays Waste To The Californian Landscape Quartz Hill residents flee as the fire tornado moves towards Redding, California. (Courtesy Lupita Franco/Caltrans District 2)

Death blew east on a savage wind, driving flames over  foothills and across a river, spitting glowing embers and scrubbing the earth bare. It was coming for Don Andrews. His bulldozer’s windows shattered, flinging glass into his face. The blue-green shards were everywhere: on the floor, inside his helmet, in his skin and eyes. He was alone and blinded. The firestorm shook the ground and roared as loud as a passing train. I’m not going to survive this, he thought.

In three decades of firefighting, Andrews, 60, had witnessed plenty of close calls. More than once, when flames burnt over his rig, he’d summoned helicopters or planes to cover him with water or pink retardant.

But on this day, 26 July 2018, he wasn’t supposed to be this close to the edge. He’d been hired by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to carve a thick ring of dirt around a subdivision of homes at the Carr Fire in Shasta County. It was a fairly routine contract assignment. The containment lines were three dozer blades wide and designed to halt the advance of the wildfire, which was still miles away.

What Andrews didn’t know was that the Carr Fire—to that point a dangerous but rather ordinary California inferno—was about to spawn something monstrous: a fire tornado the likes of which the state had never seen.

The vortex of air ripped around a column of rising heat, flames licking its walls. A freak of meteorology, it would annihilate everything in its path, uprooting trees and crumpling electrical towers.

Andrews hunkered down. He gripped the dozer’s protective foil curtains closed with his left hand to keep the wind from batting them open. With his right hand, he pulled his shirt over his nose and mouth. The heat seared his throat.

Temperatures within the tornado soared to nearly 1500ºC. A nearby Cal Fire truck exploded. Andrews dialled 911 to call in an emergency. His singed hands trembled.

A dispatcher answered, on the verge of tears. Dozens of others had phoned in already, describing the unfolding hell. Now, here was a call from ground zero.

“I don’t know how long I can last,” Andrews told her. “I need to get out of here.”

“If you can, get out safely, OK?”

“I can’t. It’s all on fire around me. Don’t risk anybody’s life for mine.”

Worst Fire Season

Even before the tornado formed, California’s fire season had been unrelenting. In 2017, fires had set new state records for size and destruction. Those records fell again in 2018 as flames threatened Yosemite National Park, torched mansions in Malibu and, in the worst fire in California history, wiped out the Sierra foothills town of Paradise in November and killed 86 civilians and injured five firefighters.

“This is what the future of wildfires looks like,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Except the acceleration hasn’t ended yet.”

For three days in July, it was the job of Incident Commander Tom Lubas, 48, to try to outmanoeuvre the Carr Fire as it inched closer to his hometown of Redding, defying the multi-agency effort to contain it.

The wildfire had begun in typical fashion—human error colliding with a dry landscape primed to burn. It hadn’t rained in the area since May and winter precipitation had been 58 per cent below normal. More than 17 other wildfires were already burning across the state, so resources to fight it were stretched.

On 23 July, an older couple, driving home from vacation to tend to a family emergency, cut through Redding. A tyre on their trailer went flat, leaving the wheel to drag on pavement near Whiskeytown Lake. Sparks flew into parched grass.

Lubas, a 23-year veteran of Cal Fire, knew most wildfires did their worst damage in the first hours after ignition, before firefighters dug in. Now, days later, the crews in Shasta County were well past that threshold. Lubas and his colleagues had set up a command centre, called in firefighters and carved containment lines. But on Thursday, 26 July, the fire exploded from just over 18 square kilometres to more than 120.

Just after noon, he had handed off his incident-commander role and left base camp at the Shasta County fairgrounds in Redding. It was supposed to be his day off, and he planned to shower and rest. From his truck window, he could see coastal winds stoking the blaze and smoke thickening.

Lubas was worried. He watched as a 9,000-metre-tall convection column—a plume filled with ash, debris and hydrocarbons—ballooned in the sky, sucking up the hot air as oxygen fed the fire.

As he drove, his truck registered the temperature outside: 45ºC. On the coast, 150 kilometres to the west, it was 15ºC. As the cool coastal air blew over Bully Choop Mountain and into the Sacramento Valley, the 30-degree difference caused warm air to shoot up in a vortex. As day turned to dusk, the convection column would rotate faster and faster, contorting into a cyclone.

Sometime after 5:30 p.m., as Lubas finished grocery shopping, the sky grew dark. The fire’s behaviour alarmed him, so he went back to work, driving to the hills north-west of Redding to assist in evacuating residents. But more than an hour later, at the intersection of Keswick Dam and Quartz Hill roads near Lake Keswick Estates, he stopped. He was blocked.

Ahead of him, the tornado twisted. It was sinister and snake-like, a swirl of orange that seemed to fill the entire sky. Flames soared 120 metres in the air. It wouldn’t touch down for another hour, but it was rapidly gaining strength. The tornado would grow to 300 metres wide, the length of three football fields, and produce temperatures double those of a typical wildfire. Its howling obliterated every other sound.

Lubas jumped out of his truck to record a video on his cell phone and was immediately blown on to his back. Goosebumps prickled his arms. Nobody is going to believe this, he thought, scrambling back into his truck.

Escape to Keswick Dam

About 7 p.m., across the Sacramento River, a few miles west of Lubas, Patrick Hoffman, 29, steered a fire engine along rural roads to reunite with the rest of the strike team deployed to Redding by the Marin County Fire Department. It was his ninth fire season with the agency, and he was finally learning to supervise an engine. Captain Mark Burbank, 43, and two new seasonal firefighters were in the back as Hoffman drove south through the tiny community of Keswick.

Hoffman had turned left on Keswick Dam Road, towards the river, when everything went dark. The crew plunged into a void of black smoke. They were in the belly of what would become the tornado—but it hadn’t started swirling yet. Embers glowed like stars. The lines on the road below disappeared. Then the accelerator slackened, the engine robbed of the oxygen that fed the fire’s combustion.

Flames flared ahead, and Hoffman reversed. Flames flared behind, and he accelerated. Back and forth he went. It was more than 90ºC inside the engine’s cab, so hot that the mapping system powered down. Painted letters, reading ‘Point Reyes’, melted off the engine’s side. So did their taillights. If the rig stalled … Hoffman didn’t want to think about it.

In the back seat, Burbank worked the radios. “We are in a really bad spot,” he messaged his battalion chief.

Firefighters carry personal shelters as a tool of last resort. The Marin crew members knew they needed to deploy theirs now. Ahead, Burbank spotted a gate leading to a small field. He figured they could break out the thin foil blankets—which reflect heat while preserving a pocket of breathable air—and crawl under them, waiting out the storm.

ie190908c_083019073806.jpg(Left to right) Patrick Hoffman; Captain Mark Burbank (Photo: ©Guy Wathen/The Chronicle/Polaris)

“I’m going to check the gate,” he said, opening the engine door. Burbank walked three metres, maybe less. Radiant heat blasted his face. His protective yellow suit started smoking. His eyes watered.

Even if I make it to this gate, he thought, I won’t make it back alive.

So he retreated to the engine. Hoffman then nosed the vehicle flush against a steep bank, a buffer from wind, flames and flying debris that threatened to shatter the windshield.

“Everyone grab your fire shelters and get ready to hold them against the windows!” Burbank shouted.

He thought of his wife, Yvonne, and their three young children. Firefighters had been dying over the summer; now he was going to be the next. But in that moment, the smoke shifted. Black faded to a caramel brown. A mirage? No, a break.

Hoffman gunned the vehicle down Keswick Dam Road, pausing for two of the men to snap a bolt on a gate, before parking in a gravel lot near the dam’s power plant. The crew of four abandoned the engine and hiked to the edge of the river. It was 45ºC, but the air outside the suffocating engine felt as crisp as a winter breeze.

Burbank re-established radio contact, trying to hide his shaking hands. “Engine 1564 is taking refuge at Keswick Dam.”

As the Marin firefighters looked south, the flames swirled and converged as the blaze hopped the Sacramento River. Ahead was Redding, population 90,000. The fire tornado was touching down.

“I’ll Lead You Out”

Cal Fire Captain Shawn Raley barked evacuation orders over the radio for the neighbourhood of Sunset Terrace. The sky was red and the wind screamed, shaking the leaves off trees. New fires lit in shrubs and on roofs.

People are going to get trapped, thought the 24-year veteran of wildland blazes. They are going to die.

ie190908d_083019073957.jpgCaptain Shawn Raley (Photo: ©Guy Wathen/The Chronicle/Polaris)

He drove towards the Land Park and Stanford Hills subdivisions tucked into the wooded hills north-west of Redding. He figured residents would need help escaping. His headlights barely pierced the smoke, but he could see black clouds whipping across the road. Three bulldozers inched past him on two-lane Buenaventura Boulevard—one driven by Don Andrews, the others by contractors Terry Cummings and Jimmie Jones. They were under some electrical lines, which were swaying in the wind, and he shouted at them to move away.

Raley’s childhood was forged in fire. His parents worked as US Forest Service firefighters and raised him in Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County. It seemed they were always rushing off in the middle of the night to battle a conflagration. Raley had worked on elite hotshot crews into the worst parts of blazes with little support, and he’d leapt from airplanes  and rappelled from helicopters as a Forest Service smokejumper. Raley had seen nearly everything, including swirling eddies of air called fire whirls. But he hadn’t seen anything like this.

In the driveway of a sprawling house in Stanford Hills subdivision, Raley spotted an idling Tesla. Dr Nanda Kumar, 62, had raced eight kilometres home from Vibra Hospital of Northern California. His wife Yasoda Thiruvoipati, 58, and daughter Dr Sushma Thiruvoipati, 29, were alone. They hadn’t received an evacuation alert, and when the power cut, their garage door wouldn’t open.

“Go back!” Raley shouted at Dr Kumar, sounding his siren.

“My wife and daughter are there, can they come in?” Dr Kumar said, pointing to his vehicle.

“Come in my truck?” Raley asked.

“Yes.”

The women, still in their pyjamas, climbed into the back seat, coughing. Nearby, flames that climbed 30 metres devoured their neighbours’ homes. Soon, their home would fall as well. Trees bent nearly in half.

“I’ll lead you out,” Raley yelled to Dr Kumar. “Take your car.”

Debris pelted the truck, cracking Raley’s windshield and shattering the others, as the wind blew the vehicle off the road. The captain threw himself across the passenger seat, shielding his face, as the fire passed over them. Yasoda and Sushma screamed.

“Are you OK?” Raley shouted, though he knew the answer. He was embarrassed. What a weird emotion to feel at this moment, he thought. He’d told this trapped family he would get them out safely. Now they were covered in glass and bleeding. Behind them, the trunk of Dr Kumar’s Tesla was aflame. But they were all alive. Raley never thought he would die on a fire line. But maybe this was it.

ie190908e_083019074141.jpg(From right) Dr Nanda Kumar, wife Yasoda Thiruvoipati and daughter Dr Sushma Thiruvoipati (Photo: ©Santiago Mejia /The Chronicle/Polaris)

A Trail of Paint

The radio call from Redding Fire Inspector Jeremy ‘J.J.’ Stoke couldn’t have been more urgent:

“Mayday!” he said.

The 37-year-old had cut short a family vacation with his wife and two children to come home and battle the Carr Fire. As the tornado descended, he was driving his truck south on Buenaventura Boulevard. The ferocity of the thing defied his long experience.

“I need a water drop,” Stoke called out at 7:39 p.m. “I’m getting burnt over.”

An engine captain responded immediately, asking for his location. There was no response.

The tornado picked up Stoke’s 2,300-kilogram Ford F-150 truck as if it was a toy car, flipping it repeatedly and dragging it down Buenaventura Boulevard. The truck scraped the pavement, leaving a trail of red paint, before coming to rest in the woods.

The twister destroyed everything around him, buckling an electrical tower into a jumble of steel, lofting a shipping container and blasting the bark off oak trees.

Melody and the Kids

On Quartz Hill Road, 70-year-old Melody Bledsoe soaked blankets in her kitchen sink and draped them over her great-grandchildren, Emily Roberts and James ‘Junior’ Roberts, who were 4 and 5 years old.

Melody’s husband, Ed, was a handyman who’d gone just down the road to pick up a pay cheque. The family hadn’t been ordered to evacuate, and Ed didn’t know the tornado was headed their way—until he got a desperate, frightened call from Junior while he was stuck in gridlocked traffic.

“Are you coming?” the boy asked, his small voice frantic. The storm was sucking air through the house, rattling the windows and ripping through the trees outside.

“Don’t worry, Grandpa is coming.”

“You gotta come in the front door, the back door is on fire,” Junior said. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“That’s where I’m coming. Be ready. You guys be ready. I’ll be there just as quick as I can. I’m waiting for the fire to pass.”

“Tell Grandpa I love him,” Melody Bledsoe said in the background, her voice barely audible.

“Everybody says they love you,” Junior said. “Come get us, Grandpa. There’s starting to be a lot of fire here.”

Then the call went silent.

“Don't Make Mistakes”

Shortly before 8 p.m., the blaze spotted around bulldozer driver Terry Cummings in an open field near Buenaventura Boulevard as he attacked the wildfire’s base. Don Andrews and Jimmie Jones worked alongside him. Raley was their boss.

Fire should have scared Cummings. The 44-year-old contractor grew up in the mountains in a logging and milling family. As a child, he would sit on his father’s lap as he drove their bulldozer through the woods. But in 2005, his mother, sister and brother died in a house fire ignited by a candle, and soon after, he shut down the family business. He’d chased wildfires ever since.

Now the field around him was a sea of rippling orange, the embers and flames seemingly alive. He couldn’t breathe from the smoke. He flagged down Andrews and Jones and led them back to Buenaventura Boulevard. He figured they could wait between the steep banks on either side of the road. The air would be clear, and the dozer engines could cool down.

But as they drove north, the tornado descended again, its edges glowing red. It whipped rocks into Cummings’ windshield like bullets, shattering the glass. It was as dark as midnight. Then it picked up the front of his bulldozer, which weighed nearly 23,000 kilograms, pivoting it clockwise and dropping it on the hood of a nearby truck, which was crushed and aflame.

The driver must be dead, Cummings thought.

He reached for the fire shelter tucked behind his seat but nabbed his gear bag by accident. He held it in front of his face to protect his airways. White blisters bubbled on his fingertips. His skin felt like it was melting. He screamed in pain.

“No, Lord,” he screamed. “Not like this!”

Now, it seemed, he was going to die the way his family had. The tornado sucked Cummings halfway out the shattered window, his body drawn by a gravity he didn’t understand. He gripped the window frame. Jagged glass pierced his left leg as he pulled himself back inside.

Reaching up, he tried to unfold the fire curtains over his dozer’s open windows. But the third-degree burns on his fingers prevented him from undoing the clasps. He grabbed a knife and cut them. Finally reaching his fire shelter, he pulled its cord as best he could.

“Be calm. Don’t make mistakes,” he repeated to himself. “Be calm. Don’t make mistakes.”

For a moment, the wind stopped.

Into the Blade

Minutes later, the tornado raced down Buenaventura Boulevard again.

Even now, much about the storm remains unknown. Several fire tornadoes could have occurred. Or maybe it was one, weakening and then again gathering strength. Those who witnessed it say it appeared to wane several times, only to be recharged.

In a final Cal Fire report, there is no consensus. What scientists know is this: Wind follows the terrain, and, as the twister headed uphill, it slowed. Then it probably fell backwards, attacking the same area again.

At that moment, the particulars didn’t matter much to Steve Bustillos, 55, as he cringed in the driver’s seat of his truck—the one that sat mangled and flaming under Terry Cummings’ dozer. The air quivered and warped from the heat, like the horizon of an asphalt highway on a hot day.

A retired San Jose police officer, Bustillos lived in the Stanford Hills subdivision. He hadn’t evacuated in time because he didn’t know he needed to. The fire had moved that quickly. As he drove out of the gated neighbourhood just after 8 p.m., he called his wife, who was receiving treatment in the Bay Area for endometrial and lung cancer, both stage 4.

“It might be over,” he told her. “The fire is here.”

Now he was in grave trouble. The fire spreading in his pickup fed off spilled diesel, torching paperwork, jewellery and guns in the back seat. Bustillos’ hair looked like someone had taken a blowtorch to it. He knew he couldn’t stay put.

So he climbed outside, grabbing a suitcase filled with clothing, and made a desperate move, crouching in the blade of Cummings’ bulldozer, which provided some protection from the wind. He held the luggage in front of him. Fifteen seconds passed, or possibly 15 minutes. He wasn’t sure.

Embers floated through the air as the wind shifted. Fire danced through the grass and in the trees. Then the temperature dropped, perhaps by as much as 10ºC. Bustillos saw Cummings sprinting down the street under his semi-deployed fire shelter.

“Get me out of here!” Cummings yelled at a man driving a Cal Fire truck, his voice cracking. “I am burnt really bad.”

Bustillos hopped into a second truck. Then he saw the driver’s face. He knew that expression from decades in law enforcement—the look when someone wearing a uniform, which meant they were supposed to keep people safe, knew that might not be possible.

The Tornado Dissipates

The tornado had jumped a river, blasted across fields, levelled neighbourhoods and rendered the landscape smooth and alien. Now it was dissipating, finally. But as it withdrew back into the sky, few knew that.

Down the hill, now near the intersection of Nash and Keswick Dam roads, commander Tom Lubas watched people stream out of hillside neighbourhoods. Their stares were vacant, like those of soldiers returning from battle.

Lubas helped spray down the back of Dr Kumar’s Tesla, which was still flaming. He directed their saviour, Capt. Raley, to set up a triage area for burn victims, and ordered five ambulances. Then he left to continue evacuating more residents along Lake Boulevard. More people flooded the intersection.

“Where is Don?” his colleague, Mike Merdock, kept asking. Eventually, Merdock was able to drive up Buenaventura Boulevard, past California Highway Patrol officers who had blocked off the street, and find the bulldozer. He figured Andrews was dead, that he couldn’t possibly have survived. But as he grabbed the back of the contractor’s shirt to haul him out of his vehicle, Andrews twitched.

Together, they drove out of the decimated neighbourhood. All that was left, as far as they could see, was ash.

 In all, the Carr Fire killed eight people, including Jeremy ‘J.J.’ Stoke, Melody Bledsoe and her grandchildren Emily and James ‘Junior’ Roberts and ruined more than 1,000 homes over 38 days.

 
San Francisco Chronicle (5 December 2018), Copyright © 2018 by Hearst Corporation
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