AS another terrifying wildfire tears through California, engulfing 8,000 acres and causing mass evacuations, one Brit will remember the moment he was nearly burned alive.
Ordinarily, Andy Elliott, a firefighter from Dorset, would be across the pond to help to tackle some of America’s most devastating blazes.
But due to travel restrictions, he’s unable to join the 200 firefighters charged with putting out the Alisal fire, in Santa Barbara, which broke out on Monday.
Strong winds blowing up to 70mph and dry wood that acted as a tinderbox for the flames have only worsened what was already described as a “hectic fire season”.
Andy knows these conditions all too well from his 38 years as a firefighter – especially while tackling the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County, California, which almost claimed his life.
He spoke exclusively to The Sun about the terrifying clash between man and a terrifying inferno.
There was no escape, all they could do was wait for the ferocious flames that had devoured the forest, buildings and gas canisters to close in on them.
Some firefighters cried, others made final calls to family members but Andy – a retained firefighter who is called in to help for emergencies – sat still in a trance, staring as it burned closer.
Helicopters were unable to reach them due to the blaze’s intensity and despite doing all they could to limit the fire from spreading they did not know whether it was enough.
After accepting they could die, each crew member took a final photograph of themselves in front of the wildfire to accompany what they thought were the last messages they would ever send.
Now whenever Andy sees that picture of himself, which shows smoke-blackened skies and the amber inferno, he smiles and refers to it as “my victory photograph”.
The fire was started by a spark from a faulty hot tub, which combined with extremely hot and dry weather conditions, developed into a 33-day blaze that killed four, destroyed 1,955 buildings and torched 76,000 acres of land.
Andy was driving through a nearby valley when he received his first call for help that day and seconds later noticed a giant “column of smoke” in the distance.
He told The Sun: “We could immediately see it, thick dark smoke rising and increasing in size very, very rapidly.
“The fire behaviour was like something I’ve never seen before and never seen since.
“There was almost a horizontal vortex, like a fire tornado on its side, running down the valley pushing huge columns of smoke ahead of it.
“It was driven by very, very powerful winds and was travelling at a pace that… Brinkwire Brief News.