Alberta firefighters escape from fire whirl — or was it a fire tornado?

Big Lake Fire tornado vortex
Firefighters can be seen on the left side of the smoke column escaping from a swirling vortex created by a wildfire at Big Lake in the Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park in Alberta. Screen grab from the Diane Logan video below.

Firefighters from Alberta’s St. Albert Fire Department had a close call Thursday April 14 while fighting a wildfire at Big Lake in the Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park (map). The fire intensity increased very suddenly as the flames moved into a heavy patch of flashy fuel. The heated, rising air began swirling or rotating in a manner that is not uncommon on wildfires. This is usually called a “fire whirl”. But it kept building and growing larger —  beyond what most firefighters would call a fire whirl and approached what is sometimes known as a “fire tornado”.

In the image above and the video below, firefighters on the left side of the smoke column were forced to run away from the very extreme fire behavior. One of them, Vincent Pashko, a nine-year veteran with the St. Albert fire department, can be seen emerging from the smoke sprinting toward the Sturgeon River. Here is an excerpt from the St. Albert Gazette:

…“Before I knew it, I heard the guys screaming at me, ‘Watch out!’” Pashko said.

“I turned around and I saw this big wall of hot ash coming towards me.”

Paschko turned away and could feel the heat burning the back of his ears and neck. “Holy smokes,” he recalled thinking, “this is more serious than I thought.”

Paschko ran into the Sturgeon [River] and dunked his head underwater for protection.

“I was booting it! I could have won the Olympics this year, I think!”

While this was definitely a close call, Paschko said at the time he was more worried about his fellow firefighters, as he wasn’t sure if they had been caught up in the blaze. When he heard them calling him, he shouted back, “I’m OK, I’m OK,” and returned to shore.

The vortex itself, which rose up several hundred feet, swirled out over the water and petered out about halfway across the river, [Stewart] Loomis said.

Pashko said he was taken to the Sturgeon Community Hospital after he had calmed down a bit where he was treated for smoke inhalation. He was back at work Friday with a bit of blistering around his ears, face, and the back of his neck…

The video below was filmed by Diane Logan. Click the arrows at bottom-right to see it in full-screen mode.

As a backup in case the video disappears from Twitter, there are copies on Facebook and YouTube, but at a lower resolution.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

8 thoughts on “Alberta firefighters escape from fire whirl — or was it a fire tornado?”

  1. Dr Greg Forbes from the Weather Channel did a short story about a year ago on fire whirls/ nado I found it to be a great piece. He explained meteorlogically a whirl is influenced and originates from the ground to sky. A Nado is start from the sky and drops to the ground. I’m sure you could find the segment he did Mr. Gabbert faster than me…

  2. Unfortunately a lot of fire fighters do not respect the potential of a grass fire to be a “killer fire”.

    This clip will go into my archives to show the falsehood of just being “a simple grass fire”.

  3. Methinks whirl would be best. From the video it seemed to have similar physics to a dust devil. Either one could kill ya. I’m so glad that everyone made it OK. I think that the swim idea was a good one.

  4. It is my understanding that Canada’s ffs do not carry fire shelters. Cal Fire had a belief that putting fire shelters on ffs would encourage them to make more risky decisions. In 1979, four cal fire ffs lost their life on the Spanish Ranch Fire when a seemingly benign grass fire blew up. 10 days later a fire shelter was issued to all cal fire personnel. I hope the policy of no fire shelters is reconsidered in canada; bad things can happen at any time in this profession. It behooves us to equip our troops with the best.

    1. You are correct, in Canada we do not need to pack them. As far as I am aware no discussions to change that decision is in the works..

  5. Wonder if the powerlines were still on? Have seen arching occurr with a lot less airborne material that what the video shows.

    1. I had an informative conversation with a utility worker while working a fire about various voltages’ potential for arcing. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his details with enough clarity to share them. But the takeaway message I remember thinking was I don’t know how to identify what voltage the line is, and never got the chance to ask him. So better to play it safe than sorry. (The particular line we were working around had very limited potential to arc he said). Is there anything in the IRPG? I’ll have to check it out…

  6. There is also a great photo from this incident showing three moose in the river escaping the fire.

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