If Firenadoes Sound Absolutely Terrifying, It’s Because They Are

These fire whirls are just one dangerous feature of California's Carr Fire.

by Josie Rhodes Cook
Wikimedia Commons

In California, a devastating wildfire has already killed at least six people and destroyed over 700 homes, with no end in sight. The Carr Fire, which began July 23, has recently seen a natural phenomenon with a terrifying effect: so-called “firenadoes.”

Firenadoes are appearing in the midst of the deadly Carr Fire because high surface temperatures are forcing air to rise and become unstable, according to USA Today on Monday. As this air with fire underneath it rises, the fire rises, too. These firenadoes are more commonly referred to as fire whirls, and they’re often made up of flame or ash.

What Is a Firenado?

“Firenadoes” are also sometimes called fire devils, fire swirls, or fire twisters. A firenado is not really a tornado at all, despite what the popular phrase for it may imply. They aren’t formed by conditions high in the atmosphere like a tornado.

Firenadoes appear when “intense heat and turbulent wind conditions” come together and become “whirling eddies of air,” according to National Geographic. That can tighten into a structure that seems tornado-esque, but it’s really just a whirlwind more commonly known as a fire whirl. The magazine also added that these “fire tornadoes” have a core which is actually on fire, along with a “pocket of rotating air that feeds fresh oxygen to the core.”

Why Are They Impacting the Carr Fire?

Lonnie Quinn, a chief weathercaster for CBS, said there’s some major heat being generated around the CarrFfire, and it’s to blame for these terrifying fire whirls. He told CBS the ambient air temperature is close to 110 degrees where the wildfire is raging, and that air is rising very quickly into the atmosphere, saying:

You need to think of this as the air being a solid, and if you’re taking a chunk of that air, superheating it and rising into the air, it’s leaving a void below it.

And as that air is pulled in, it rotates, swirling faster and getting taller as it goes. Basically, the intense heat of the Carr Fire is not helping matters, and the devastating fire in Northern California has created perfect “fire tornado” conditions.

Firenadoes Can Be Big, Scary, and Move Unpredictably

“Firenadoes” can move over either land or water. Just weeks ago, a fire whirl was seen moving over a pond in California.

These “fire tornadoes” are usually only a few feet wide but can grow up to 10 times that size, CBS-affiliate WVLT reported last week, and they boast winds of up to 100 miles per hour.

Basically, you don’t want to be anywhere near one, but if you find yourself in the vicinity of a “firenado,” you’ll wanna get out of its way, and fast.