Meteorologists determine the Creek Fire created two fire tornados

Northeast of Fresno, California earlier this month

Satellite photo showing smoke from fires in California
Satellite photo showing smoke from fires in California at 6:01 p.m. PDT Sept 5, 2020. NASA/Wildfire Today. The Creek Fire

The Creek Fire ran for more than 10 miles and burned 36,000 acres during the first 22 hours after it started at 6 p.m. September 4 northeast of Fresno, California. During that time it created two fire tornados and sent its smoke plume up to 55,000 feet, taller than the tornadic thunderstorms in tornado alley.

An analysis by meteorologists from the National Weather service has revealed that the extreme growth on September 5 generated rare phenomenons — vortices rated at EF2 and EF1, sometimes called fire tornados when they are created by a wildfire.

One was near Mammoth Pool Reservoir and the other was near Huntington Lake. Over 200 people trapped by the fire at Mammoth Pool Reservoir were flown out by courageous National Guard Pilots in helicopters, at times through darkness and smoke.

The NWS personnel rated the vortices based on the effects on trees, including areas where trees were debarked, indicating an EF2 event.

Below is an excerpt from an article by Matthew Cappucci  in the Washington Post.

Jerald Meadows, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Hanford office, said both tornadoes shared common features. “The main contributing factor was the debarking of all the pine trees up with the Mammoth Pool tornado,” Meadows said. “They both uprooted trees to the root balls and snapped large pines. But the [EF1 tornado] did not have any signs of true debarking. We’re probably talking the difference between 100 and 110 miles per hour.”

The Mammoth Pool tornado, which touched down inside the Wagner Campground, snapped several two-foot-diameter trees about 20 to 30 feet above the ground; it was rated as having winds of 115 to 125 mph. The Huntington Lake fire tornado had winds of 90 to 107 mph, and the NWS noted that it was “the result of unprecedented fire activity.”

The article reports that the NWS personnel on duty while the tornados were occurring had concerns about activating their severe weather warning system.

“A tornado warning was considered but not issued,” said [Jerald Meadows, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Hanford Office], who feared that disseminating such an alert might leave people unnecessarily conflicted about deciding whether to shelter or evacuate.

“A tornado warning for a fire opens up a can of worms,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re messaging properly, and we were talking to fire crews letting them know of the circulations we were seeing.”

Before the onslaught of fire tornadoes that has been a hallmark of 2020′s blazes, some National Weather Service offices have had internal discussions and concluded that they would not issue tornado warnings for wildfire-related twisters. While the National Weather Service hasn’t issued specific policy guidance to its 122 forecast offices on how to handle fire tornadoes, Meadows suspects considerable research will be needed to reach a resolution.


This article was edited September 26 to clarify the locations of the fire tornados at Mammoth Pool Reservoir and Huntington Lake.

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

NWS issued fire tornado warning for Loyalton Fire northwest of Reno Saturday

At least five tornado-strength/scale vortices are likely to have occurred in the fire Saturday

August 16, 2020 | 5:04 p.m. PDT

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

On August 15 meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Reno observed on radar a very rare fire tornado in real time at the Loyalton Fire about 12 miles northwest of the city. They used emergency warning systems to get the word out as quickly as possible to firefighters and the general public. It is believed that this is the first time a real time warning for this type of event has ever happened, at least in the United States.

They also sent out tweets, of course:

NWS tweets fire tornado

Loyalton Fire map
Map of the Loyalton Fire the morning of August 16, 2020, time uncertain, but possibly about 2 a.m.
The Loyalton Fire started at about 4:30 p.m. August 14 east of the town of Loyalton and southwest of Mount Ina Coolbrith. It burned north and east adjacent to the areas of Beckwourth Pass and Hallelujah Junction. Early Sunday morning it was estimated at 29,829 acres. More information about the Loyalton fire on Wildfire Today.

A fire tornado is just like it sounds — a large column of rotating air over a vegetation fire. Inside it and around it are extremely strong winds, very high temperatures, and flying debris.

On July 26, 2018 a firefighter was killed as a fire tornado burned and scoured a mile-long path as the Carr Fire moved into Redding, California. A Redding Fire Department Inspector was burned over in his truck and died on Buenaventura Boulevard. Three dozer operators were entrapped and one of them was also killed.

According to a Green Sheet report by CAL FIRE the conditions that resulted in the entrapment of three dozers and the Redding Fire Department Fire Inspector that day were due to the fire tornado — a large rotating fire plume that was roughly 1,000 feet in diameter. The winds at the base were 136-165 mph (EF-3 tornado strength), as indicated by wind damage to large oak trees, scouring of the ground surface, damage to roofs of houses, and lofting of large steel power line support towers, vehicles, and a steel marine shipping container. Multiple fire vehicles had their windows blown out and their bodies damaged by flying debris.

The strong winds caused the fire to burn all live vegetation less than 1 inch in diameter. Peak temperatures likely exceeded 2,700 °F.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Washington Post about the fire tornados yesterday:

Fire tornadoes in and of themselves are rare; being able to detect them in real time on radar is something new. Wendell Hohmann is the meteorologist at the Reno office who issued the precedent-setting warning. He described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime, career event.”

“We were just trying to get the message out of the extreme fire behavior from this fire given the rotation and the tornadic potential,” Hohmann said. “We figured we could do a severe [thunderstorm warning], but we decided to do a tornado warning to get [the emergency alert system] and [wireless emergency alerts] to activate.”

Matthew Cappucci believes at least five tornado-strength/vortices are likely to have occurred on the Loyalton Fire August 15.

The news media sometimes calls any little fire whirl a “fire tornado”, or even a “firenado”. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”

It was just two days ago that I wrote extreme fire behavior and massive pyrocumulus are becoming much more frequent. If we are going to see more fire tornados, that is a scary thought. The west coast is expected to have very high temperatures this week.

Loyalton Fire
Loyalton Fire at 1:39 p.m. PDT August 15, 2020, looking north.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris and SST.

Video: how the fire tornado formed at the Carr Fire

formation fire tornado Carr Fire
Early stage in the formation of the fire tornado at the Carr Fire, July 26, 2018. Screenshot from Scientific American video below.

Scientific American has produced a video that describes the formation of the fire tornado that burned and scoured a mile-long path as the Carr Fire burned into Redding, California July 26, 2018.

In the video below, click on the little square at bottom-right to see it in full screen.

There were two fatalities on the Carr Fire that day. Redding Fire Department Inspector Jeremy Stoke was burned over in his truck on Buenaventura Boulevard. On the other side of the Sacramento River, on the west side, Don Ray Smith was entrapped and killed in his dozer.

According to a Green Sheet report by CAL FIRE, the conditions that resulted in the entrapment of three dozers and the Redding Fire Department Fire Inspector that day were due to the fire tornado — a large rotating fire plume that was roughly 1,000 feet in diameter. The winds at the base were 136-165 mph (EF-3 tornado strength), as indicated by wind damage to large oak trees, scouring of the ground surface, damage to roofs of houses, and lofting of large steel power line support towers, vehicles, and a steel marine shipping container. Multiple fire vehicles had their windows blown out and their bodies damaged by flying debris.

The strong winds caused the fire to burn all live vegetation less than 1 inch in diameter. Peak temperatures likely exceeded 2,700 °F.

The Carr Fire burned 229,651 acres, destroyed 1,077 homes, and killed 3 firefighters and 5 civilians

The news media sometimes calls any little fire whirl a “fire tornado”, or even a “firenado”. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Fire whirl recorded on video in the UK

Fire Whirl
Fire Whirl — Leicestershire Fire & Rescue Service

I don’t often associate extreme wildland fire behavior with the United Kingdom, but firefighters with the Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service grabbed some video of this impressive fire whirl near Swadlincote, a town in Derbyshire, England.

Fire Whirl

Fire Whirl
Fire Whirl — Leicestershire Fire & Rescue Service

We have written about similar phenomenons several times on Wildfire Today. Here is an excerpt from a 2016 article, “Defining fire whirls and fire tornados”:


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”

Firefighters in British Columbia battle with fire tornado

It took possession of their fire hose

fire tornado british columbia
Screenshot from the video below by mar.lowsky

When I went through basic firefighter training the instructors did not cover what to do if a fire tornado takes possession of our fire hose.

What would YOU do if your fire hose got swept up?

FYI: In the video caption below, “line” is fire hose, and “guard” is fire control line.

Retired police officer describes how he survived fire tornado at Carr Fire

carr fire tornado redding california
Steve Bustillos tells his story of surviving the Carr Fire. Screengrab from KRCR video.

KRCR has the story of how a retired police officer in Redding, California who was trapped in the Carr Fire survived the same fire tornado that killed a Redding firefighter.

As the fire approached, Steve Bustillos was driving away from his home with his most important possessions in the back of his truck when the strong winds and debris broke a window in his vehicle allowing burning embers to blow inside the cab. He turned around to see that everything in the bed of the pickup was on fire, then the seats in the cab ignited.

He told the reporter, “The truck is moving and I’ve got both feet planted on the brake pedal and the truck is literally starting to lift itself up off the ground.”

CAL FIRE issued a Green Sheet report about the incident which included this information about the fire tornado that entrapped Mr. Bustillos.

Winds at the base of the fire tornado reached speeds in the range of 136-165 mph (EF-3 tornado strength), as indicated by wind damage to large oak trees, scouring of the ground surface, damage to roofs of houses, and lofting of large steel power line support towers, vehicles, and a steel marine shipping container within ½ mile of the entrapment site. The strong winds caused the fire to burn all live vegetation less than 1 inch in diameter and fully consume any dead biomass. Peak gas temperatures likely exceeded 2,700 °F.