Cal­i­for­nia’s hell fire

Cal­i­for­ni­ans are used to deal­ing with wild­fires, but then came one that was like a ‘ ‘tor­nado com­bined with a blast furnace’

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY By Tim Hussin

The worst case sce­nario plays out the same way every­where, whether you are in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia or north­ern Al­berta. A nascent wild­fire – driven by ex­treme heat, high winds, drought con­di­tions and a cen­tury of largely suc­cess­ful fire sup­pres­sion – ex­plodes into a jug­ger­naut and takes over the coun­try­side. Any houses in the way are sim­ply more fuel. Pre­heated to 500C by the 30-me­tre flames of the ad­vanc­ing blaze, homes don’t so much catch on fire as ex­plode into flames. In a dense neigh­bour­hood, many homes may do this si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The speed of ig­ni­tion shocks peo­ple – cit­i­zens and fire­fight­ers alike – but it is only the be­gin­ning. Be­cause the tem­per­a­tures achiev­able in an ur­ban wild­fire are com­pa­ra­ble to those in a cru­cible, vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing is con­sumed as fuel. What doesn’t burn, melts: steel car chas­sis warp and bend while lesser met­als – alu­minium en­gine blocks, mag­ne­sium wheels – will liquify. In turn, the fe­ro­cious heat gen­er­ates its own wind that can drive sparks and em­bers hun­dreds of me­tres ahead of the fire. Con­fla­gra­tions of this mag­ni­tude are vir­tu­ally un­stop­pable. Or­di­nary house fires of­ten leave struc­tures partly in­tact; things can be sal­vaged. But no one is pre­pared for the dam­age caused by a wild­fire when it over­runs their town – not the scale of it, nor its ca­pac­ity to wipe out ev­ery­thing.

In late July, nearly half of the 92,000 res­i­dents of Red­ding, Cal­i­for­nia, were forced to evac­u­ate. More than 1,600 homes, busi­nesses and other struc­tures burned in the Carr fire, due to sparks thrown by a trailer wheel with a flat tyre. But the cause hardly mat­ters; it was 45C that day, and the land was primed for fire.

Seven peo­ple were killed, three of them fire­fight­ers, but when sur­vivors tell of their es­capes, it seems a mir­a­cle there weren’t many more. A lo­cal den­tist, sur­prised by the flames in the gated com­mu­nity of Stan­ford Hills, fled for her life through the woods. Dis­ori­ented, she and her hus­band fol­lowed the an­i­mals – deer, rab­bits and squir­rels – as they fled down­hill, to­wards the Sacra­mento river.

An­other neigh­bour, a re­tired homi­cide de­tec­tive named Steve Bustil­los, was pre­par­ing to evac­u­ate when he noted an omi­nous, breath-like qual­ity to the ris­ing wind. It was the fire draw­ing oxy­gen into it­self. When Bustil­los stepped out­side he saw the air rip­pling, “like when you open an oven door”.

A mo­ment later, the air it­self ap­peared to burst into flames. Trees and houses fol­lowed, ig­nit­ing spon­ta­neously in the su­per­heated air. Bustil­los es­caped in his pickup, but the fire caught him on Bue­naven­tura boule­vard, a kilo­me­tre from his home. His pickup was heavy – over three tonnes – but it was moved off the road. Af­ter the pas­sen­ger win­dow blew out and the truck caught fire, Bustil­los man­aged to get out the ve­hi­cle and take refuge un­der a nearby bull­dozer.

Some­how, he sur­vived and is re­cov­er­ing well, though he looked for a time as if he had been rolled in red-hot gravel. In the truck were all of his and his wife’s valu­ables – guns, jew­ellery, pass­ports and cash. His loaded pis­tols were fir­ing as the truck burned; noth­ing was sal­vage­able. Foren­sic anal­y­sis of the scene on Bue­naven­tura, where a bull­dozer op­er­a­tor was also killed, con­cluded that wind speeds were some­where be­tween 220 and 270km per hour, and that “peak gas tem­per­a­tures likely ex­ceeded 1400C” – the melt­ing point of steel.

In other words, what Bustil­los en­dured was equiv­a­lent to an EF3 tor­nado, com­bined with a blast furnace.

“We all know some­one who lost a home” is not a phrase you used to hear very of­ten, but in the North Amer­i­can west, it has grown much more com­mon over the past decade. The com­mu­ni­ties where you hear this are grow­ing, too – small cities, en­tire neigh­bour­hoods.

In Red­ding, many res­i­dents re­turned to ru­ins and in them there are pat­terns. The show­ers of­ten sur­vive, stand­ing alone, a mor­bid joke now, while washer-dryer sets stare

out like blank eyes in a roof­less skull. The charred shells of stoves, air con­di­tion­ers, freez­ers and re­frig­er­a­tors are warped out of shape, or col­lapsed. Fire dam­age has its own pal­ette; it runs from bone-white through taupe to char­coal black, the rest of the spec­trum burned away.

Ash cov­ers ev­ery­thing – the mem­o­ries, the his­to­ries and com­forts, re­duced to the barest el­e­ments: car­bon, stone and steel, all cloaked in smoke and suf­fused with the acrid reek of burn­ing. This tableau re­peated it­self more than a thou­sand times around Red­ding – a thou­sand fam­i­lies stand­ing on the side­walk, won­der­ing where their houses went.

Ev­ery­one who loses a home is struck by how much is gone, and also by what re­mains: a car­pet pre­served by leak­ing wa­ter from a rup­tured pipe; books, ghost-white with ev­ery page in­tact, un­til you touch them and they col­lapse in a cloud of ash.

A home is a kind of me­mory palace and there is an ex­is­ten­tial cru­elty in the raz­ing of it. To burn them down by the hun­dreds and thou­sands, as wild­fires are do­ing now in the western US and Canada, is a bru­tal af­front to the or­der we live by, to the habi­tats that give our lives mean­ing. Their loss shocks the heart like a sud­den death. Left be­hind are jux­ta­po­si­tions so sur­real and dis­ori­ent­ing that to de­scribe them sounds like the mut­ter­ings of an in­sane per­son: garbage can pud­dle; melted guns on a plat­ter; cars bleed­ing alu­minium; pile of tyre wire. Is this re­ally where I lived, where I raised my chil­dren? Where did their beds go? Their be­d­rooms?

Three kilo­me­tres north of Red­ding, on a broad, forested slope that feels al­most ru­ral save for the steady crackle of high ten­sion wires over­head, Wil­lie Hart­man stands an­kledeep in the ru­ins of her home. Hart­man is a slight but sturdy grand­mother with white hair and a sad-eyed kind­ness and, a month on, while her grand­daugh­ter plays around her, she is still com­ing to terms with the fire that has un­made ev­ery­thing as far as the eye can see. Be­hind her, what used

to be a me­tal porch rail­ing droops like a Dali clock. Spot­ting a charred skele­ton of fur­ni­ture, she mur­murs: “The lawn chair’s in the house.”

So is the mail­box. Noth­ing is where it should be any­more, or even what it should be be­cause the Hart­man fam­ily, along with hun­dreds of oth­ers in the hill coun­try north of down­town, were sub­ject to some­thing far more in­tense than or­di­nary wild­fire.

Hart­man’s liv­ing room, which no longer ex­ists, once had a pic­ture win­dow of dou­ble-paned glass, but it melted. You can see it now out­side, a vit­ri­fied river flow­ing down­hill to­ward her daugh­ters’ homes, each of them burned to the foun­da­tions, many of their con­tents borne away on the in­cin­er­at­ing wind that spun out of the Carr fire and into their neigh­bour­hood shortly be­fore 8pm on 26 July.

Sarah Joseph, 73, lives a kilo­me­tre to the north-west, in the Keswick es­tates neigh­bour­hood of mod­est, mostly sin­gle-storey homes. Many of the res­i­dents here were sure the 30 me­tre-wide Sacra­mento river would stop the fire’s ad­vance. Joseph had to gather her­self be­fore de­scrib­ing what crossed the river on that 38C evening. “It looked like a tor­nado,” she said, “but with fire.” It ar­rived so quickly that she had only min­utes to gather up her cat, some pho­tos and a change of clothes be­fore flee­ing for her life.

There are videos and they are ter­ri­fy­ing: surg­ing up out of a clus­ter of burn­ing neigh­bour­hoods is a whirling vor­tex 300 me­tres across, seething with smoke and fire. No one has ever seen any­thing this big, this ex­plo­sive, or this de­struc­tive rise up out of the for­est and en­ter a town. Dur­ing its brief ex­is­tence of ap­prox­i­mately 30 min­utes, the in­cen­di­ary cy­clone sent jets of flame hun­dreds of me­tres into the sky, oblit­er­ated ev­ery­thing in its path, and gen­er­ated such

With the ex­cep­tion of the Ham­burg air bomb­ing, there is no record of a ‘py­ron­ado’ of this mag­ni­tude

fe­ro­cious ther­mal en­ergy that its smoke plume punched into the strato­sphere.

The dam­age at ground zero, a 300-me­tre wide, kilo­me­tre-long swathe of scoured earth, an­ni­hi­lated homes and blasted for­est run­ning just south of the Hart­man fam­ily com­pound, is hard to com­pre­hend. There, a pair of 40-me­tre tall steel trans­mis­sion tow­ers have been torn from their con­crete moor­ings and hurled to the ground where they still lie, crum­pled like dead gi­raffes.

All the houses nearby are gone. In the sur­viv­ing branches of black­ened trees, where plas­tic bags would or­di­nar­ily flut­ter, 3-me­tre pieces of sheet me­tal have been twisted like silk scarves. A 4-tonne ship­ping con­tainer was torn to pieces and hurled across the land­scape. The same thing hap­pened to trucks and cars; one was wrapped around a tree.

Most of the grass and top­soil are gone; any­thing left be­hind was burned.

Larry Hart­man, Wil­lie’s hus­band of 47 years, is a large, con­ge­nial man. When I asked him what he would have imag­ined hap­pened here if he hadn’t wit­nessed it him­self, he re­gards the ut­ter ru­ina­tion all around him, the spa­ces where out­build­ings and other land­marks of his life no longer are, and says, “a bomb. Like Hiroshima.”

When you com­pare pho­tos of the hypocen­tre of that nu­clear blast with the ex­co­ri­ated ground just south of the Hart­mans’ prop­erty, they are hard to tell apart. One of the Hart­mans’ daugh­ters, Christel, used to hunt bears with her fa­ther and she in­her­ited his for­mi­da­ble hand­shake. Christel recorded video of their evac­u­a­tion on her phone, and it shows a fire surg­ing over the hill, which is how many Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires ar­rive, but this fire is higher than the trans­mis­sion lines.

You can see the tow­ers’ lat­ticed sil­hou­ettes ghost­ing in and out of the flam­ing wall. “It made a roar­ing sound,” said Christel, “like a man.” She demon­strates for me and then says: “Only 10 times that.” Across Quartz Mine Road, a few hun­dred me­tres from the Hart­man com­pound, an el­derly woman and her two great grand­chil­dren were burned alive in their trailer.

Cap­tain Dusty Gyves, a 20-year vet­eran with Cal Fire, Cal­i­for­nia’s 130-year-old state fire­fight­ing agency, was shocked by what he saw 400 me­tres south-west of the Hart­mans’. Af­ter be­ing lifted into the air, a two-tonne pickup truck was sub­jected to forces so vi­o­lent that it looked, said Gyves, “like it had been through a car crusher”. And then in­cin­er­ated.

A fire­fighter named Jeremy Stoke was in­side that truck and there is a memo­rial to him now on Bue­naven­tura. There are flow­ers, a flag, a night­stick and a hu­mor­ous por­trait of Stoke hold­ing a pis­tol, along with dozens of ball­caps, T-shirts and shoul­der patches rep­re­sent­ing po­lice and fire de­part­ments from all over Cal­i­for­nia. Among the of­fer­ings is a hand­writ­ten note say­ing: “Rest easy, brother. We will take it from here.”

What do you call some­thing that be­haves like a tor­nado

but is made of fire? Wild­fire sci­en­tists bri­dle at the term “fire tor­nado”; they pre­fer “fire whirl”, but “fire whirl” seems in­ad­e­quate to de­scribe some­thing that built its own weather sys­tem 10 kilo­me­tres high. In 1978, me­te­o­rol­o­gist, David Goens, de­vised a clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem that placed fire whirls of this mag­ni­tude in the “fire storm” cat­e­gory, along with the caveat that: “This is a rare phe­nom­e­non and hope­fully one that is so un­likely in the for­est en­vi­ron­ment that it can be dis­re­garded.” This was 40 years ago. So what has changed? For one, the ad­di­tion of a new verb to the wild­fire lex­i­con. “Nat­u­ral fire never did this,” ex­plained Gyves. “It shouldn’t moon­scape.” But now it does. It is alarm­ing to con­sider that this an­ni­hi­lat­ing en­ergy ar­rived out of thin air, born of fire and fanned by an in­creas­ingly com­mon com­bi­na­tion of tripledigit heat, sin­gle-digit hu­mid­ity, high fuel loads, dy­ing trees and the bat­tling winds that swirl daily through the moun­tains and val­leys across Cal­i­for­nia and the greater west.

That this phe­nom­e­non may rep­re­sent some­thing to­tally new has be­come a sub­ject of de­bate among fire sci­en­tists and me­te­o­rol­o­gists. The only other event that comes close is a full-blown tor­nado that oc­curred in con­junc­tion with the no­to­ri­ous Can­berra bush­fires of 2003. With the ex­cep­tion of the Ham­burg firestorm, ig­nited when Al­lied bombers dropped thou­sands of tonnes of in­cen­di­aries on that Ger­man city in 1943, there is no record of a “py­ron­ado” of this mag­ni­tude oc­cur­ring any­where on earth.

Painfully clear is the fact that there is no way for fire­fight­ers to com­bat these all-con­sum­ing fires – with or with­out a tor­nado in their midst. Wa­ter has lit­tle ef­fect on a high in­ten­sity wild­fire. Among the struc­tures burned near Red­ding was a fire sta­tion. As one Cal Fire rep­re­sen­ta­tive said of the Carr fire’s fe­ro­cious early days: “It shifted from a fire­fight­ing ef­fort to a life-sav­ing ef­fort.”

There was a time not so long ago, when a fire like this one, which forced the evac­u­a­tion of 40,000 peo­ple and burned nearly 1,000 sq km across two coun­ties, might have been an anom­aly, but these days, says Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire bat­tal­ion chief: “The anom­alies are be­com­ing more fre­quent and more deadly.”

Eight of the most de­struc­tive wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia’s his­tory have oc­curred in the past three years. But as de­struc­tive as oth­ers have been – the 2017 Tubbs fire with 44 lives lost and 5,600 struc­tures de­stroyed; this year’s Men­do­cino Com­plex fire, the largest ever – none of them equalled what was vis­ited upon the Hart­mans and their neigh­bours.

Once re­stricted to weapons of mass de­struc­tion and ex­cep­tion­ally in­tense for­est fires in re­mote set­tings, the tor­nado-sized firestorm is no longer as un­likely as it was in the 1970s. In 2014, an­other huge one was ob­served in dense for­est 65km east of Red­ding. As the cli­mate changes, fires no longer cool down at night as they once did; in­stead, they sim­ply grow big­ger and more pow­er­ful. Mean­while, hu­man set­tle­ment con­tin­ues to push deeper into the for­est where kilo­tonnes of un­burned en­ergy waits for any spark at all.

But most peo­ple trau­ma­tised by wild­fire aren’t think­ing about that. They are think­ing about get­ting their lives back. The Hart­mans had no in­sur­ance, but Larry is op­ti­mistic: “If I have my way,” he says, “there’ll be a new house here in a year.”

Sarah Joseph was in­sured, but she is fin­ished with Red­ding, a place she has wit­nessed grow­ing steadily warmer. “I’ve walked out on ev­ery­thing two or three times in my life,” she said. “I can do it again.” There is a town in Ore­gon and she is tak­ing her younger brother. That town is as vul­ner­a­ble to wild­fire as Red­ding; so are most towns now, from Mex­ico to Alaska, but that is not what con­cerns her.

“I will not cry,” she says to her­self as she gets ready to leave one more time •

Trunks are all that re­main of the thick forests near Red­dingSteve and Car­rie Bustil­los. Steve nar­rowly es­caped from a ‘fire whirl’

The Carr fire’s in­tense heat was enough to warp steel

Larry and Wil­lie Hart­man lost their unin­sured home in the fire. They say they will re­build it

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