FRESNO, Calif. - A "fire tornado" scorched the area near Huntington Lake when the Creek Fire initially picked up in intensity last week, according to Huntington Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Donnelly.
The large flames and high winds caused many trees to be uprooted in the old meadow area in front of Kennolyn Camps on the north side of Huntington Lake, Donnelly said of the scene he witnessed Sept. 5.
He and others captured the scene in photos and on videos that they hope to share with evacuees in the coming days.
A fire tornado, also sometimes called a fire whirl, occurs when intense heat from a wildfire causes hot air to surge up from the ground and form a whirl or tornado-like vertically oriented rotating column of air, according to UC Santa Barbara's Department of Geography.
A week later, Donnelly said Saturday that the Creek Fire continues to burn in the area, with some fires occurring underground and attacking the root system of trees at more than 1,500 degrees.
"Fire inspectors from the office of the State Fire Marshall stated that fire behavior in the Kennolyn area is the worst they had witnessed in their career," Donnelly wrote in a post that was shared on social media, timestamped as 11 a.m. Saturday. "Unfortunately, it will be some time before it is safe to enter the burned areas."
The root systems on fire can leave tunnels that can collapse underfoot, Donnelly added.
Even areas that didn't catch fire were affected, with Donnelly recounting that unburned trees somehow hit unburned cabins in the Upper Line area.
At least five cabins were destroyed, the chief said.
Upper Bear Extension takes brunt of fire
The Upper Bear Extension is considered the hardest hit area of Huntington Lake.
"We were able to visualize almost all areas, however, in the northernmost portion of Upper Line, it was unsafe for even us to enter," Donnelly said.
A drone was used to fly over the five cabins destroyed and capture images.
No losses were reported regarding cabins near Grouse Creek, according to Donnelly.
But "almost every" boat trailer seen in the burned areas suffered significant damage.
"We have taken many pictures and video recordings showing the devastation and are working on a plan to make them available to you," Donnelly wrote in his post. "Because of the large number and the size of the files, it may take a few days to determine the best way to share those images."
The good news
Despite the devastation to the area, Donnelly said, most of Huntington Lake did not burn thanks to backfires set by firefighters in other areas to steer the fire's intensity elsewhere.
The U.S. Forest service defines a backfire as "a fire set along the inner edge of a fireline to consume the fuel in the path of a wildfire and/or change the direction of force of the fire's convection column."
Dozer lines, which are fire lines constructed by the front blade of a dozer to remove flammable plant material down to bare soil, also helped the fire move downhill east of Billy Creek, where most of the destruction occurred, the chief added.
"If winds remain calm, the fire at Huntington may be contained next week ... praying and hoping!" Donnelly concluded.
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