A fire tornado or “firenado” can form when a wildfire makes the air super hot and it rises very quickly, pulling in winds to create a rapidly spinning twister made of fire. Also called a firewhirl, it may look like a column of fire or it may be a whirlwind apart from the flames.
According to Weather.com, a very strong wildfire can create a “pyrocumulus cloud,” which looks like a thunderstorm cloud. If the cloud has enough updraft, a relatively small firewhirl can grow big enough to look like a regular tornado. These flaming storms can fuel dangerous high-speed winds, cause ashes to start burning again, and spread fiery debris over long distances.
The National Oceanic Administration Association (NOAA) has said that fire tornadoes are rare, but in recent years more people have been capturing them on camera.
- Wildfires and strong winds in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, created a firenado that stopped traffic on a local highway in August 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssn2kmNf0ME
- TV cameraman Chris Tangey filmed a 90-foot-tall firewhirl at a cattle station in Northern Territory, Australia, in September 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsyvOYcWgcg
- A firefighter made a video of a massive firenado that developed in August 2013 during the Tetlin Junction Ridge Fire in Alaska, where an unusually hot summer made fire season even more dangerous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lh67J4TNPK
- A photographer took a shot of a firewhirl rising in May 2014 while a farmer burned his field in Chillicothe, Missouri. http://www.weather.com/photos/photo-details/fire-twister_4624c0a8-c264-4d9a-a2c5-46b5d156eda0–db04bc18-ee64-11e2-9ee2-001d092f5a10
Scientists are just beginning to understand more about this phenomenon, but fire tornadoes aren’t exactly new. A really bad one happened after the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan, when a huge firestorm created a massive firewhirl that killed 38,000 Tokyo residents in about 15 minutes, according to Smithsonian Magazine. A few years later in California, a series of firewhirls after a lightning-induced firestorm caused a lot of property damage and killed two people.