Scientist says more fire tornados are being reported at wildfires this year

Researcher uses radar data to make three-dimensional maps of smoke plumes

Radar rendering of smoke plume over the Creek Fire
Radar rendering of smoke plume over the Creek Fire. By Neil Lareau, University of Nevada Reno.

The extreme heat caused by a large high pressure system in the West has led to an unusual number of fire tornados.

An article in the Washington Post by Matthew Cappucci explains how Neil Lareau, a professor of atmospheric sciences in the department of physics at the University of Nevada at Reno, used detailed weather radar data to make three-dimensional maps of smoke plumes over fires. While it is unusual to have a fire tornado anytime, the data indicates that on at least three fires this year fire tornados have been detected by radar. One was photographed on the Loyalton Fire August 15 about 12 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada. National Weather Service meteorologists who spotted it on radar issued the agency’s first-ever fire tornado warning.

Fire tornado Loyalton Fire
Fire tornado on the Loyalton Fire, by @DVRockJockey August 15, 2020.

Fire tornados and huge smoke plumes topped by massive pyrocumulus clouds are indicators of extreme fire behavior. There is absolutely nothing firefighters or aircraft can do to slow a blaze under those conditions — and those pyrocumulus clouds seem to be occurring more frequently this year.

Creek Fire
Creek Fire September 5, 2020. IMT photo.

The day after the Creek Fire started, its smoke plume grew to 55,000 feet, taller than the tornadic thunderstorms seen in Oklahoma and Kansas in the the spring.

From the Post:

“Anecdotally, this is the deepest that I’ve seen,” said Lareau, who was shocked by the height achieved by the smoke plume. “It’s about a solid 10,000 feet higher than we’re typically seeing with the highest of these plumes.”

Before 2020, only a few fires had ever produced documented fire tornadoes in the United States; now we’re seeing them every week or two. Lareau says the tremendous heights of the wildfires’ clouds, combined with more concerted and astute observation, are factors in the numerous fire tornadoes that have been reported this year. He thinks there may also be some truth to the apparent increase.

“We have a ton of eyes on every fire, looking at every frame, but still, we weren’t seeing these before,” he said. “And we’re seeing all too much of it right now. It’s rather worrying.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim.

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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+

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