Fire tornadoes, or fire whirls, are meteorological events occurring when the intense heat from conflagrations create conditions similar to those for natural tornadoes. Normal tornadoes require hot ground-level air and cool atmospheric air; as the heat rises from the ground and the cold air drops, turbulence is formed which can create a destructive, whirling funnel cloud. The much stronger heat of a large blaze can result in the same type of temperature disparity and stir whirlwinds of flame, smoke and ash into damaging vortexes.
Tornadoes are uncommon, but fire tornadoes are rare. They require a large mass of fire, as opposed to merely a very warm ground and a cooling upper atmosphere and natural turbulence in the area.
Because the components for a regular tornado are well known, when conditions which could spawn them are encountered there are watch alerts given, upgraded to warnings if a tornado is seen. Today, the National Weather Service issued a fire tornado warning, just before 3 PM in an area of Lassen County in Northern California.
The Sacramento Bee spoke with the NWS agent who issued the warning:
Wendell Hohmann, the NWS forecaster who penned the tornado warning said that it was the first time to his knowledge of a tornado warning of this nature.
“It’s probably the first time it’s been issued outside of a thunderstorm environment,” Hohmann said.
The reason the events are also called fire whirls is that the clouds do not reach the bottom of the overhead cloud cover in the way that traditional tornadoes do. That would naturally lead one to wonder how large today’s event was, if it would inspire the abnormal step of a warning to residents and firefighters in the area. Luckily, it was caught on video.
I think I’m going to just agree with the professional on this one and call it a tornado. Or a hurricane force spinning firecone of flaming death. One or the other.
Question of the night: Murder hornets. Covid-19. Fire tornadoes. Vampire fish making it into the rivers. What’s a bizarre natural catastrophe you’re waiting to hear about before January 1st rolls around?