In the history of California wildfires there has never been anything like it: A churning tornado filled with fire, the size of three football fields. An official report describes in chilling detail the intensity of the rare fire phenomenon and how quickly it took the life of Redding firefighter Jeremy Stoke, 37, who was enveloped in seconds as he tried to evacuate residents on July 26. The massive funnel of smoke and flames was about 1,000 feet wide at its base and shot approximately 7.5 miles into the sky; it reached speeds of up to 165mph with temperatures that likely exceeded 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, says the report by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The tornado exploded in the middle of what was already a gigantic, devastating wildfire that started on July 23.
A 17-year veteran of the fire department, Stoke was familiar with the dangers of wildfires. But this was unprecedented. "There have been several documented instances of a fire whirl in California," says Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire battalion chief. "But this is the largest documented fire whirl—a fire-generated tornado—in California history." The report says record heat in the Sacramento Valley and cool, high-speed winds coming in from the coast contributed to the tornado. "It was something out of this world, a perfect storm," Gary Parmely, who was Stoke's stepfather and raised him from the time he was a child, tells the AP. "It was incompatible with life, and he happened to drive into it." Stoke, who leaves behind a wife and two children, had cut short a vacation in Idaho to return and fight the fire.
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