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The fobnos of the West Melt Our Sense of How Fire Works

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Even as Knapp pushed the spigot upwards, the swirling smoke that he’d seen rapidly accelerated and transformed much of the massive lower plume of the Carr fire into the largest fire tornado ever observed — a whirling fire tornado about 17,000 feet tall and spinning at 143 mph with the destructive force of an EF-3 tornado, the type that destroys entire cities in Oklahoma.

Even as Knapp pushed the spigot upwards, the swirling smoke he’d seen was quickly accelerating, transforming much of the Carr fire’s enormous lower plume into the biggest fire tornado ever observed — a whirling fire tornado 17,000 feet tall and spinning at 143 mph with the destructive force of an EF-3 tornado, the kind that destroys entire cities in Oklahoma.

While Knapp sprayed water around Derksen’s house, this fire tornado — hidden by all the smoke in the air — crossed the Sacramento River, touched down in Land Park, knocked off high-tension power lines, downrooted trees, wrapped steel pipes around utility poles and destroyed hundreds of homes, igniting and shredding them and hurling their burning debris up to altitudes where commercial jets fly.

Not far from where Knapp stood, CalFire-captain Shawn Raley evacuated a woman and her daughter in his truck when all the windows fell and poured them with shattered glass. A 37-year-old fire inspector called J. J. is near by. Shortly before the tornado struck, Stoke broadcasted Mayday to drop his 5,000-pound Ford F-150 off the asphalt and repeatedly flipped it down Buenaventura Boulevard, killing him. Three other CalFire workers were dragged with bulldozers on the same street when their windows also smashed. One of the 25-ton vehicles spun and fell onto a truck driven by a retired police officer who then jumped out and crouched behind the bulldozer wing while his truck caught fire.

This is about when flaming debris that had been sucked in the smoke-dump of the Carr Fire drifted into what fire meteorologists call the Fallout Zone, which is exactly what it sounds like. Knapp could never have seen this happen ; it was tens of thousands of feet above him. Nor could he see the glowing remnants of homes and trees hurling like firebombs down, smashing into roofs and energising dozens of homes downwards. Während Knapp, who thought still that the Carr fire was moving with the slow predictability of a classic shallow flame front, looked out over the black whirling darkness above and saw embers fall down on the bark chips he stood dredging them ablaze. At the same time Knapp felt the much powerful cold pulse of the ground even when he was puffed in.

The 2018 California fire season became the most destructive on record — a title that it maintained for barely a quarter of a century when it was overtaken by the fire season in late summer 2020, not by the 2020 fire season, but by four weeks of it.

That fire tornado, and the fire that raged for weeks afterwards, eventually destroyed over a thousand homes and buildings, killed eight people and burned nearly a quarter-million acres. Yet it was neither the largest California fire of 2018 nor the most destructive nor the only to behave in frighteningly unusual ways. The Mendocino Complex fire, about 100 miles south of the Carr, which began the day after Knapp left unwittingly beneath a tornado, was also briefly plume-driven and eventually burned nearly 460,000 acres in what was then the largest California wildfire of all time. In early November, the Woolsey Fire near Malibu destroyed 1,643 structures while knocking trees and power cables out of the ground with a force suggestive of yet another firestorm – tornadoes. The famous Camp Fire burned likewise 70,000 acres in 24 hours — for a while about one football field a second—and created an urban firestorm that destroyed more than 18,000 structures and killed 85 people, mostly in the city of Paradise, generating billions of dollars in claims and bankrupting the state’s largest utility, PG&E.

By the time the 2018 California fire season was over, it had burned more than 1.6 million acres to become the most destructive record – a title it held for less than 20 months when it was not defeated by the 2020 fire season but by a mere four weeks in late summer 2020, during which an estimated 3 million acres were burned. But that is not the truly scary part. As one makes sense of Western wildfires, the burned acres are far less important than the increasingly capricious violence of our most extreme fires. It is as if we have crossed some threshold of climate and fire fuel in an era of uncontrolled conflagrations.

“Not only are size and severity increases, but the nature of fire is changing”, says David Saah, the director of Pyregence, a group of fire science laboratories and researchers working on the problem. The physics of large-scale wildfires remain so poorly understood that fire-modeling software is often practically incapable of predicting where they will occur next, much less how they will unfold once they happen. If there is good news, it is that Saah has bragged: “Science is in the process for a lot of this stuff.”

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