‘Firenados’ are Real and Truly Terrifying

As the Carr Fire burned in Northern California last July, a fire tornado, aka “firenado” that was 18,000 feet high and equivalent to an EF-3 tornado moved across the city of Redding for nearly an hour, ripping roofs off houses and toppling trees.

In August, a firenado in England was captured on video as firefighters with the Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service Ashby Station were trying to put out a blaze.

A month later, a firenado over 200 feet high appeared during a wildfire in British Columbia. It lifted a fire hose over 100 feet into the air before melting it and dropped burning logs for 45 minutes. “That’s definitely a first,” wrote wildland firefighter M.C. Schidlowsky on Instagram.

Earlier this month, an 18,000-foot-tall firenado appeared along the coast of Malibu during the Woolsey Wildfire, shredding power lines and lifting debris hundreds of feet into the air.

Unlike “sharknados”, firenados are a real and terrifying phenomena. Here’s what you need to know about them and whether, thanks to climate change, they’re here to stay.

What exactly is a firenado?

A firenado is not an actual tornado but a monster-sized version of a more common fire whirl. While tornadoes form from conditions up in the atmosphere, fire whirls—like dust devils and whirlwinds—are created by hot air rising near the earth’s surface.

What causes a firenado?

When extremely hot air begins rotating close to the ground, it rises high due to the heat, bringing flames and ashes along with it. Neil Lareau, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Nevada, compared it to twirling figure skaters raising their arms above their heads to whirl even faster.

“They kind of concentrate that rotation, and make it stronger,” he told KQED. “And the fire is doing this huge vertical boost to that rotation that may have been at the surface. It’s starting to look more like a tornado than your garden-variety fire whirl.”

“Garden-variety” fire whirls usually rise only to a maximum of about 1,000 feet and last for a few minutes at the most. Still, they are dangerous because they pick up burning embers and can drop them a long distance from the where the fire is burning, starting a new fire.

Firenados, on the other hand, are even more dangerous, Live Science reports, because they are so hot (as much as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit), last so long and move so quickly, spreading fires as they go.

Should we start getting used to them?

California Governor Jerry Brown described the current deadly wildfire situation as the “new abnormal“, due to climate change, and warned that these disasters will intensify over the next 20 years. Could firenados in the state and elsewhere around the world be part of this scary new reality?

Scientists are trying to understand more about fire whirls and what causes them. They do know that hot weather is a factor. A large temperature differential leads to a large pressure differential, which accelerates the wind, Lareau explained. “You’re kind of off to the races once you get something like this going,” he told KQED.

The firenado in Redding occurred during a record-breaking heat wave, when the temperature reached a scorching 113 degrees. Lareau told KQED it was “not a coincidence” and “embedded in a broader trend, and we’re going to keep seeing that.”

Fire scientist A. LeRoy Westerling, co-director of UC Merced’s Center for Climate Communication, has a prediction regarding the new abnormal that’s even scarier than a firenado.

“A ‘normal’ is a long term average that provides a useful guide to the future,” he tweeted in July, “but wildfire is responding to accelerating climate change: no one alive today will ever see a stable climate again.”

Photo credit: KPIX CBS SF Bay Area/YouTube

92 comments

John W
John W6 days ago

TYFST

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan Hill10 days ago

thanks for the info

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Tabot T
Tabot T13 days ago

Scary

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson14 days ago

Thank you.

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Shae L
Shae Lee14 days ago

Thanks for sharing!

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Janet B
Janet B15 days ago

Thanks

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Pam Bruce
Pam Bruce16 days ago

Thank you. I hope people learn something about this issue. It is truly dangerous. It just points out that global warming is very real.

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Dot A
Dot A16 days ago

Horrific! Anyone with a blade of intelligence sees how the human population is a significant contributor to the atmospheric changes which contribute to such completely devastating events. The Earth will heal itself, however, with our without us. I pray for humanity to 'sense' what is happening and pull together collectively for 'us' to do whatever we can to assist the Earth's natural healing, for us all to "Live Long and Prosper", - which I do believe is possible when we commit to it. {right now our political environment is still devoted to money, and that is the furnace which will destroy us if we don't wake up to our better angels} There is enough money. We need to learn how to behave lovingly. I'd say, just by the symbolism of climate change, that the Earth is expressing a great deal of anger because of our greed and selfishness. SF also suffered from toxic smoke for many days. No one escaped the significance of what was happening, . . .

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Judith Emerson
Judith Emerson16 days ago

OMG!!!!! :o

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Caitlin L
Caitlin L16 days ago

thank you

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