The massive Carr Fire in Northern California, which ranks among one of the most destructive wildfires in state history, not only has burnt over 100-thousand acres of land, but has also recently spawned a powerful “firenado.” Similar to a tornado, this phenomena can also be known as a fire whirl.

Credit: Skip Murphy

These form when hot air from the fire rises, creating vertical columns, until it cools and becomes less dense as the air increases in altitude. As more air gets wrapped into this column, the suspended air begins to spin in a vortex. These “firenados” are just like dust devils but with added burning embers, ash, and malleable debris. This makes them very dangerous, as they act like a spinning tower of flames.

An unusually strong “firenado” developed Friday on the northern side of Redding, California. According to radar rendering, the plume of smoke that spawned the vortex rapidly underwent vertical development, growing from 19-thousand to 39-thousand feet in just 40 minutes. This rapid increase in height possibly explains why this particular “firenado” was so powerful.

Animation courtesy of Neil Lareau

This rapid vertical development likely also corresponded with a massive pyrocumulus cloud.

Heat is an important ingredient for the development of clouds. When you get an area of very intense heat, like from a wildfire, that can lead to the formation of a pyrocumulus cloud. This heat, which can reach temperatures greater than 1500°F, allows for the air to rapidly rise. Sometimes when there is enough moisture present in the atmosphere, the cloud may become a pyrocumulonimbus, or a thunderstorm.

Twisted metal and fallen trees were the main results of this “firenado” on Friday. Typically, this type of vortex is weaker than a tornado, which forms directly from a thunderstorm, but this particular one was surprisingly strong.

Below is a gallery of the various damage it caused.

One of three high voltage transmission towers melted and blown over. Credit: Damon Arthur
Widespread tree damage. Credit: Wilson Walker
Steel pipe wrapped around tree. Credit: SJSU FireWeatherLab

Trees and leaves blown over. Credit: Damon Arthur
Ripped-up vegetation. Credit: SJSU FireWeatherLab



Jackson is Head of Content at WeatherOptics and produces several forecasts and manages all social media platforms. Previously, Jackson forecasted local weather for southwestern Connecticut, founding his website, Jackson's Weather, in the March of 2015. He is currently studying Meteorology and Broadcast Journalism at the University of Miami.

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