Researchers flying over wildfire detected 130 mph updrafts in smoke plume

And, downdrafts reaching 65 mph

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Pioneer Fire
Smoke plume with pyrocumulus over the Pioneer Fire, posted on Inciweb August 29, 2016.

Researchers flying near smoke plumes over a large wildfire found extreme updrafts up to 130 mph and downdrafts reaching 65 mph. Operating radar and other sensing equipment in a small plane, one of the scientists was injured as the aircraft experienced a dramatic vertical displacement as it penetrated a 34-meters-per-second updraft in a plume over a flank of the 2016 Pioneer Fire in Idaho.

This is the first time the vertical velocity structure of a pyroconvective updraft has been viewed in such detail. The research showed that intense fires can produce updrafts that rival or exceed those in tornadic supercell thunderstorms.

An unexpected finding was that the updrafts strengthened with height above the surface, at least initially, challenging the assumption that they should decelerate with height.

The updrafts, the strongest ever documented, can be a hazard to aviation since they do not always show up on pilots’ weather avoidance radars, as discovered during a Qantas flight over a bush fire in Australia in January, 2020. Passengers experienced turbulence and darkness as the airliner entered the pyrocumulus cloud.

"There was one guy sort of swearing … I heard people down the front vomiting."

Another passenger said it was "the scariest flight" she had taken.
smoke plume research convection column pyrocumulus
Overview of the PyroCb topped plume rising from the Pioneer Fire on 29 August 2016. (a) Map showing the fire perimeters, flight legs, locations of photos (triangle markers), terrain (hillshaded), and KCBX radar‐derived plume “echo top” heights (color shaded). (b) KCBX echo top time series showing rapid plume growth and the flight interval (red shaded). (c) Time mean KCBX radar reflectivity during the flight interval with head and flanking fire plumes annotated. (d) Photograph from the Boise National Forest at ~00 UTC 30 August 2016 showing the head fire plume and the transition from the ash‐filled lower plume to the pyroCb aloft. (from the research)

These findings are presented in a paper published September 9, 2020 written by B. Rodriguez, N. P. Lareau, D. E. Kingsmill, and C. B. Clements.

Convection column Pioneer Fire
Convection column with pyrocumulus over the Pioneer Fire, August 30, 2016. Photo by Nick Guy of the University of Wyoming.

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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.

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