Noelle Bahnmiller was scheduled to be off work. But as a favor, she agreed to take another firefighter’s shift. It was early August, in the middle of a brutal fire season that already seemed endless. Lightning sparked the tinder-dry, remote wilderness in Mendocino County and Bahnmiller, then a captain at Cal Fire and her engine crew were dispatched to lay firehose across a ridgeline.
But a few hours later, her radio crackled with urgent voices: The fire blew up. It burned its way to the tops of the trees, creating a crown fire, the most feared and volatile wildfire.
With flames shooting 250 high or more – akin to a blazing, 23-story building – crown fires start on the ground and use small trees and lower limbs as ladders to catapult into the treetops. From that commanding height, embers are carried aloft on fire-created convection winds, sparking new blazes miles from the fire front.
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