143-mph 'Fire Tornado' Hits California, Sweeping Away Everything in Its Path
CALIFORNIA — August 4, 2018
The fire-storm lasted from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on July 26, and struck some of the already hardest-hit neighborhoods in Redding. The maximum wind speed reached 143 mph.
As a result, most of the trees in the path of the storm were pulled up from the root, bark on one side was sheared off; cars were blown away; tiles ripped off the roofs of houses; and a large transmission tower was knocked over. Wind damage was also reported in areas untouched by the flames.
The combined fires have forced about 15,000 people to evacuate their homes.
Dan Keeton, the meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said the fact that the weather service was able to see the rotation of the 35,000-foot-tall plume on its radar — well over 100 miles south of Redding — was significant.
"This was not typical wildfire damage. I’ve never seen anything like that in my career," said Keeton, who has been with the weather service since 1985.
The National Weather Service and California Fire’s Serious Accident Review team announced that they were still conducting a storm damage survey.
This kind of fire tornado has been documented before, but only a handful have been recorded “at this sort of scale,” said Neil Lareau, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. “You’re starting with a rare event, to begin with, and for it to actually impact a populated area makes it even rarer.”
"Depending on the final number, this might actually be the strongest ‘tornado’ in California history, even if it wasn’t formally a tornado," UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said by email. "There have been a couple of marginal EF-3 twisters in California’s past, but this fire whirl was almost certainly longer-lived, larger in spatial scope and perhaps even stronger from a wind speed perspective."
A team of officials led by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is also looking into the vortex as part of its investigation of the blaze.
According to witnesses, the storm was a horrific sight.
Another breathtaking example of a pyrocumulus cloud over the #CarrFire this week -- generated when the fire is so hot the air explodes upward, creating a new local weather pattern that can bring strong winds, lightning, and... new fires.— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) July 30, 2018
Photo: @TMFPD pic.twitter.com/hXvtElAQba
Justin Sanchez, 37 and his father Greg, 69, were in the back of a pickup truck during the tornado.
“Oh my gosh! Oh my God!” Sanchez wailed as he struggled to record what he expected would be the last few moments of his neighborhood before his home burned. His phone camera captures a giant vertical, cone-shaped cloud with an orange glow at the base, spinning counterclockwise. Flames can be seen in the foreground.
His neighbors shouted “It just jumped the river! It’s headed our way!”
“Within a matter of 10 minutes there, once the ‘fire-nado’ started almost inching on our neighborhood, the winds had to have been 40 to 60 mph winds … the sky got dark,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t understand how a fire and tornado could combine into one massive death machine.”
Sanchez said he dashed into his house a couple of times to grab some photos, but the second time he exited the home, the fire had already come within a football field of him. Sanchez said the vortex traveled three to four miles in just 15 minutes.
"Trees appeared to be levitating, and branches and sheet-metal roofs seemed to orbit the column," Police Chief Roger Moore said. "Uprooted objects launched into the air ignited mid-flight. Vegetation and homes hundreds of feet from the column also caught fire before the twister arrived. It was as loud as a roaring jet engine."
He watched the growing flames and smoke plume approach the western bank of the Sacramento River, hop over it, grow, andthen come together in what he called a “plume tornado.”
“I don’t know how fast that tornado was moving, but it was probably faster than a human can run,” Moore said.
Earlier it was reported that the California Carr Fire killed at least 8 people; at least 40 are still reported missing.
Among the victims was a second firefighter, who died fighting the massive blaze in the south near Yosemite National Park. A private-hire bulldozer operator, who was not identified, also died while battling the fire.