TBT: firefighters caught in fire whirl

For Throwback Thursday, here is what we published on May 20, 2014 about firefighters being caught in a fire whirl:


Fire whirl, 1989
Still image from the video below of firefighters being overrun by a large fire whirl in California in 1989.

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.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Kent

Fire whirl filmed with infrared camera

infrared video of fire whirl
Screen shot from infrared video of a fire whirl. Courtesy of RPX Technologies.

Jim O’Daniel of RPX Technologies sent us the link to the video below which shows a small fire whirl filmed by one of their HyperSight infrared thermal cameras. The devices, which can see through smoke, can be mounted on a fire engine.

Mr. O’Daniel said, “The camera we developed is intended as a safety tool for escaping and navigating through smoke. The camera is vehicle-mounted and always ready. It allows the driver to see while keeping windows up and both hands on the wheel.”

And, just to be clear, it is not a “fire tornado”. David W. Goens of the Missoula office of the National Weather Service explained what a fire tornado is:

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.

In addition, they can last for an hour or more and have been known to move across the terrain for miles. You do not want to be anywhere near a fire tornado. They can be deadly.

After the Carr Fire at Redding last year, a report was issued about a real fire tornado that was related to the death of at least one firefighter.

A large fire tornado was one of the primary causes of the entrapment and death of FPI1 on July 26, 2018. The fire tornado was a large rotating fire plume that was roughly 1000 feet in diameter at its base. tornado Fujita scaleWinds 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.

Impressive fire whirl in Australia

fire whirl
A still image from the video below of a fire whirl in New South Wales, Australia, February, 2019.

This video, below, of extreme fire behavior was posted by Shane Fitzsimmons, the Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia. It shows a fire whirl, sometimes incorrectly called a fire tornado. Fire tornados exist, but they are much, much larger and can last for up to an hour or so and average 100 to 1,000 feet in diameter with rotational velocities up to 90 MPH.

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.

Fire whirl, or waterspout, or fire tornado?

Spectacular video at a fire near Blythe, California

Above: screenshot from the video below.

Chris Mackie posted this video on July 15, 2018 of spectacular fire behavior at a wildfire on the Arizona side of the Colorado River near Blythe, California. It is not uncommon to see dust devils and fire whirls during unstable weather conditions on a fire, but as you can see beginning at about 1:10 the rotating vortex over this fire intensifies into what some might call a fire tornado (or “firenado”) as trees are uprooted and debris is thrown into the water as it moves over the river (and transforms into a waterspout?).

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.”