The unbridled fury of the ongoing, prolific wildfires in British Columbia, Canada has been perfectly encapsulated by this incredible, unnerving footage of firefighters battling a fire whirl. After the hazy behemoth snatches their hose skywards, they try throwing rocks at it to no avail.
Spotted by Earther, and captured by firefighter M.C. Schidlowsky, she explains on her Instagram post that the fire hose melted during the "firenado’s" 45-minute display. It also threw flaming logs at them.
“Sorry for the profanity,” she adds, unnecessarily. Situations like this are surely why swearing was invented.
Wildfires aren’t the only thing that can make their own spinning fire-flingers. As was beautifully documented by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), lava emerging from Kilauea’s flanks was able to generate what were unofficially referred to as lavanadoes.
Independent of an overlying thunderstorm system, these whirlwinds were created thanks to a lava-generated updraft of warmer air and converging, rotating winds. Despite the intense heat, however, said whirlwinds were fairly ephemeral and weak compared to those generated by forest fires.
It’s not entirely clear why, but forest fire-generated fire whirls are usually more potent and longer-lived than those that appear above lava channels. Similarly, the pyrocumulus and pyrocumulonimbus clouds – the fire- or lava-generated versions of their conventional equivalents – that form over wildfires are far more impressive than their volcanic versions.
This is speculative, but it may be that the updraft produced by the fires is more sustained, or that the exchange of heat from ground to sky is more efficient. The updrafts over lava probably fluctuate quite rapidly, as the tumultuous surface of freshly-erupted lava often sporadically crusts over as it cools, cutting off a regular supply of radiated heat.
Although colloquially termed a firenado, per Mashable, the fire whirl in this dramatic video was indeed just that: a classic fire whirl. Much like those lavanadoes, which are technically whirlwinds, this spinning conflagration wasn't connected to a thunderstorm system, and had relatively low wind speeds.
However, a fire whirl that appeared within the devastating Carr wildfires in California this summer caused a perspective shift. Generating winds of 230 kilometers (143 miles) per hour, this registered as a 3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. This scale is used to approximate the damage such a tornado can cause; 0 is the lowest, and 5 is the highest.
Along with its unbelievably high wind speeds, it was also likely connected to a cloud system that was itself generated by the wildfires. This makes it much more like a conventional tornado compared to those aforementioned lava and fire whirls.
As this excellent primer by Maddie Stone at Earther explains, some considered it to be a hybrid between a landspout-like vortex and a tornado associated with a supercell (rotating) thunderstorm. Either way, it’s quite uncertain as to how it got so powerful.
The blurry lines between such things is just one reason this is an increasingly intense field of study. Fire whirls and fire tornadoes are fairly rare events, and, along with their unpredictability, they make for challenging phenomena to study, with plenty of questions unanswered.
What specific environmental and meteorological variables are required to make a fire whirl, or a bona fide fire tornado? What’s more important – a sustained updraft or wind shear? How does climate change influence the appearance of wildfires? It can’t be frequency, because we’d see them appear every time there’s a wildfire or a voluminous lava flow, which isn’t the case.
In the meantime, if you see a vortex of fire, best leave it be. If firefighters can’t do anything about them, then you certainly can’t. Run for cover.