Above: Screen capture from the video by Jon Krause.
Twitter user @JonLKrause posted videos of a large, long-lasting dust devil/fire whirl that persisted over a prescribed fire at Kramper Lake near Hubbard, Nebraska for about five minutes on Tuesday April 11.
Sometimes these are called “firenadoes” but this one did not have much fire in it. Dust devils and fire whirls can occur on days when the atmosphere is unstable. The heat from what remained of the fire and the solar heating of the blackened ground probably contributed to the phenomenon. It is interesting that after moving to the edge of the lake it still persisted for a while before dying out.
These two recently filmed videos illustrate what can happen over a fire when thermal instability and available vorticity combine.
The Cornelius (Oregon) Fire Department posted this video on August 12, 2016 showing an impressive fire whirl.
The video below was filmed by Stewart Turner August 5, 2016 on the Pioneer Fire in Idaho. You will see a definite rotation, or convection column vortex. While this one is not as violent as, say, a conventional tornado, the change in wind direction or the collapse of the column can cause a serious problem for nearby firefighters.
The news media sometimes calls any little fire whirl a “fire tornado, or even a “firenado”. We found out today that these and related terms (except for “firenado”) were, if not founded, at least documented and defined in 1978 by a researcher for the National Weather Service in Missoula, David W. Goens. He grouped fire whirls into four classes:
Fire Devils. They are a natural part of fire turbulence with little influence on fire behavior or spread. They are usually on the order of 3 to 33 feet in diameter and have rotational velocities less than 22 MPH.
Fire Whirls. A meld of the fire, topograph, and meteorological factors. These play a significant role in fire spread and hazard to control personnel. The average size of this class is usually 33 to 100 feet, with rotational velocities of 22 to 67 MPH.
Fire Tornadoes. These systems begin to dominate the large scale fire dynamics. They lead to extreme hazard and control problems. In size, they average 100 to 1,000 feet in diameter and have rotational velocities up to 90 MPH.
Fire Storm. Fire behavior is extremely violent. Diameters have been observed to be from 1,000 to 10,000 feet and winds estimated in excess of 110 MPH. This is a rare phenomenon and hopefully one that is so unlikely in the forest environment that it can be disregarded.
Mr. Goens further described three different types of fire whirls generated:
The Thermally Driven Form. This results from some type of shear in the horizontal airflow coupled with the energy release (convection) from fire activity.
The Convection Column Vortex. This form is poorly understood. It originates high in the convection column (up to 1000 feet) and extends in the ground as much as a fourth (1/4) mile on the leeward side of the fire.
The Wake-Type Whirl. This results from the generation of eddies caused by airflow around an obstacle coupled with heat released by the fire.
Mr. Gowns continued:
All three of these types can be a significant problem in the spread or control of fire. The fire whirl in its steady-state form, i.e., after it has formed and before it begins to collapse, has two sharply defined regions of differing airflow (Byron and Martin 1970). The cooler, slowly rotating zone surrounds a central core of hot gases with high horizontal and vertical velocities. This central core can have temperatures from 1,800° to 2,400°F and burning rates two to seven times normal. Flame height can be 10 to 50 times the core diameter. Fire spread occurs when burning debris entrained into the column just above the surface boundary layer is carried aloft and then cast out from the upper portion of the whirl core some time later. The path of the whirl can be quite erratic; therefore, direction and rate of spread are almost impossible to forecast.
One of the best videos of a large fire whirl or fire tornado was shot by Chris Tangey of Alice Springs Film and Television in 2012 while he was scouting locations near Curtin Springs station in Australia. It is used here with his permission.
And lastly, I filmed this next video at the USFS Fire Lab in Missoula in 2014, showing an artificially created fire whirl.
About 500 people were forced to evacuate as fires near Cape Town, South Africa burned for a fourth day on Wednesday. Firefighters said a small amount of rain did not have any significant effect on the 12,000-acre blaze that started on March 1. There are no reported fatalities, but 52 people from an old-age home had to be treated for smoke inhalation. Homes, offices, historic wine farms and a hotel lodge were damaged or destroyed.
An excerpt from an article at Blolomberg:
While some fires have been contained, they continue to burn in the Lakeside, Constantia Valley and Clovelly areas and are expected to take until the end of the week to extinguish, according to city officials and Working on Fire, the national fire management agency. Six helicopters and two planes dumped 2.2 million liters (580,000 gallons) of water in more than 2,000 drops, helping to stop the spread of flames in areas inaccessible to fire-fighting crews and their vehicles. Helicopters were grounded in the late afternoon on Wednesday due to strong wind and poor visibility.
An excerpt from an article at News24:
[Wednesday] morning, the City of Cape Town’s Fire Safety Division conducted a survey to determine exactly how many properties have been affected since the fire started in the early hours of Sunday 1 March 2015 above Boyes Drive in Muizenberg.
Staff have confirmed that 13 properties have been affected, including the Tintswalo Lodge at the foot of Chapman’s Peak. Three of the properties have been completely destroyed: two in Constantia and one in Noordhoek.
The video below shows a pretty cool fire whirl. I would not call it a “fire tornado”, or “firenado”, as some are. THIS is a firenado.
The six photos below were taken by Clint Sutton on Tuesday. Thanks Clint.
You may have seen the footage in the video below, of firefighters being overrun in 1989 by a very large fire whirl or fire tornado (or firenado) in California. It is very impressive, and can be another reason why firefighters need to be on their toes and very situationally aware.