A fire tornado, also known as a firenado, is a fire whirl. It occurs when a column of warm air rises from wildland fire and begins to rotate. Fire tornadoes typically go along with high winds and can be very destructive. While they are rare, they can occur under extreme conditions.
What is a fire tornado?
It is a type of twister that forms when a fire whirl’s updraft hits an obstacle, such as a wall of buildings. It is a whirling column of fire and smoke, reaching up to 2,000 feet (ca. 610 m) in height. This twister contains winds of more than 100 miles per hour (ca. 161 km/h).
Their rotation can be either clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on the direction of the wind. These whirlwinds of fire can uproot trees and throw embers long distances. In addition, they can create their weather patterns, including thunder and lightning.
People may sometimes refer to this tornado of fire as a whirlwind.
What is a dust devil?
Fire tornadoes are often confused with dust devils, as they can look like columns of rotating air; however, the two phenomena are different.
Dust devils occur when warm air rises from the ground. In contrast, fire tornadoes form when a column of rising air is already in place. The fire then inhales into this air column to create a spinning effect.
The difference is essential, as fire tornadoes are far more destructive than dust devils. They can reach up to 150 miles per hour (ca. 241 km/h).
Fire tornadoes typically only last for a few minutes. However, in that time, they can cause extensive damage to property and infrastructure.
In addition, they can be extremely dangerous to people caught in their path. In short, fire tornadoes exemplify nature’s power, and people should respect them.
How does a fire tornado form?
A fire tornado requires a source of heat, ongoing combustion, and dry air to form.
The heat source can be anything from a wildfire to an industrial accident. Once the conditions are right, the column of warm air will begin to elevate and rotate. As it does so, it can pick up debris and become destructive. As a result, fire tornadoes can cause severe damage.
For example, in 2012, a fire tornado ripped through the Australian town of Tathra, leveling more than seventy homes. Fortunately, no one died because of the disaster. Thanks to early warnings from authorities, residents were able to evacuate before the tornado hit.
Fire tornadoes are most likely to form during large wildfires, mainly when there is a large amount of open flame. However, people may produce them due to arson or using pyrotechnics. Finally, they can happen during structure fires if there is enough fuel for the fire to continue burning.
How to prevent a fire tornado?
Firefighters who encounter a fire tornado should take shelter immediately and wait for the storm to pass. In some cases, they may be so powerful that they may overturn vehicles.
Thankfully, certain things can prevent them from forming.
Firefighters sometimes use fire tornadoes to help them control wildfires. They can direct the flames into already burnt areas by creating their fire tornado. This controlled firenado helps to stop the wildfire from spreading any further.
For example, firefighters can create breaks in the vegetation that fuels the fire, disrupting the flow of warm air and preventing its formation.
They may use fire retardants in specific locations to prevent their formation.
Further reading: Are you near a wildfire? Be sure to follow our preparation plan!
Some of the most extensive fire tornadoes in history
On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The explosion created a massive firestorm that spread across the city, killing thousands of people and destroying much of the infrastructure.
At the center of the fire, the tornado was a column of superheated air. It reached up to 20,000 feet (ca. 6 kilometers) into the sky. Furthermore, the column surrounded a ring of flames stretching out for miles. The tornado lasted only a few minutes, but the damage it caused was catastrophic. It destroyed thousands of buildings, and countless people were killed or injured.
The Hiroshima fire tornado was the largest and most destructive fire tornado in history. It serves as a reminder of the devastation that they can cause. And it is a warning to us all to prepare for the worst.
Another fire tornado took place on October 2017 in California. It engulfed the region in flames. Over several days, more than a dozen wildfires spread through the area, causing widespread damage and displacing tens of thousands of residents.
During this disaster, one fire stood out: The Tubbs Fire, which scorched more than 36,000 acres of forest and destroyed over 5,000 homes.
But what made the Tubbs Fire so destructive was not just its size; it was its speed. The fierce winds caused the fire to spread rapidly through Santa Rosa, resulting in what survivors described as a “fire tornado.”
At its peak, scientists estimate the Tubbs Fire tornado was 3,000 feet (0.91 km) wide. The wind speeds reached 140 miles per hour (ca. 225 km/h). Fortunately, there were no fatalities associated with the fire tornado; however, it caused extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure.
In the following months, the Tubbs Fire became known as the most destructive wildfire in California history.