To Lord of the Rings fans, the smoldering Baldwyn, Mississippi tree looked just like the Eye of Sauron. Others said it looked like the “gateway to Hell,” the “way into the Upside Down,” or the “burning bush.” But to Wally Smith, Ph.D., a conservation biologist at University of Virginia’s College at Wise, it was proof of something far scarier — the violence of random lightning strikes.

“I’m not too sure about the specifics of that particular case, but usually that can happen when you have a tree that is hollowed out on the inside,” Smith tells Inverse.

In the original photo of the lightning-struck tree, which went viral after it was tweeted out by Alabama broadcast meteorologist James Spann, the hollow portion of the tree, filled with glowing flames, is clearly extensive. Smith, who had retweeted a photo of the tree with his thoughts on how it could start a forest fire, explains that those hollows usually form because of stress to the tree. “Wind damage, past lightning strikes, insects can form a cavity,” he says.

Once the tree’s insides are ignited, he notes, it can burn for an unexpectedly long time.

In his previous work as a fire ecologist — the self-described “academic mutt” now specializes in studying salamanders — Smith had studied the effects of fire on trees in the forests of the southeastern United States, learning that those sorts of cavities make “ripe” conditions for a fire to start. And, if storms have made the outside of the tree sufficiently wet — which seems to be the Baldwyn tree’s case, Smith says — the fire could smolder in the cavity without consuming the entire tree for up to a month, as long as it’s got good airflow. And, as Smith pointed out in his tweet, it’s entirely possible that the flames could spill out and ignite another fire.

story continues below

While it’s usually lightning strikes that cause this sort of phenomenon to take place, Smith notes that he’s seen instances in which dead trees that “look just like that picture” remain after a forest fire is intentionally spread through an area to control vegetation. That’s clearly not the case in the photo, however — the tree is in the middle of a grassy field. “Probably either lightning or someone intentionally trying to start it would be the only other way,” Smith says.

In his work in the forests of the southeast, he hasn’t noticed any notable changes in climate that might lead to natural forest fires, but he does acknowledge that climate change predicts an increase in droughts in the area. While we can’t say whether this trend would lead to more terrifying flaming cavities opening up in friendly neighborhood trees, we do know that the fiery eyeballs can stay lit for a long time — and wreak havoc as long as they stay open.