Fire tornadoes reported in Northern California wildfire

Funnel appearing in thick plume of smoke from the Loyalton Fire is seen in Lassen County, California, on Aug 15, 2020, in an image obtained from social media. PHOTO: REUTERS

SACRAMENTO (NYTIMES) - The National Weather Service said it was planning to investigate reports of a rare occurrence of fire tornadoes arising Saturday (Aug 15) from a 8,093ha wildfire in Northern California.

Dawn Johnson, a meteorologist with the service in Reno, Nevada, said Sunday that the agency had received reports of fire tornadoes in an area of Lassen County, California, about 40km northwest of Reno.

"It's not like a typical tornado where it happens, everything clears out and you safely go and investigate," Johnson said.

"In this case, there's a massive wildfire burning in the same location, so the logistics are a lot more complicated."

Doppler radar showed at least five rotation signatures, but Johnson said she could not confirm that they would all be classified as fire tornadoes.

Multiple components must come together for fire tornadoes to form: turbulent winds, uneven terrain and extreme heat from fire, which causes the air to rise rapidly, said Ben Gelber, a longtime meteorologist with WCMH-TV in Columbus, Ohio.

Other elements, like gas being released from burning vegetation, serve as fuel for the tornadoes as well.

"It's applying our traditional knowledge of tornadoes to a rare phenomenon," Gelber said.

"It's so unusual, it's a little difficult to wrap our heads around. Of course, the towering clouds created by fires, we've all seen that. But the tornadic feature or multiple fire whirls, that's just incredible."

On Saturday afternoon, the Weather Service posted a warning about a possible "fire-induced tornado" from the Loyalton Wildfire in parts of Lassen County.

The wildfire "exploded most impressively" Saturday "with a very large pyrocumulus and reports of fire tornadoes," the service said.

"Due to the possibility of very strong fire-generated winds and extreme fire behaviour with danger to fire personnel, a tornado warning was issued to heighten awareness in the area of the fire."

The wildfire started Aug 14 near Loyalton, California, about 72km west of Reno.

As of Sunday, it was 5 per cent contained, the US Forest Service reported.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for multiple Northern California counties.

Shane Snyder, a meteorologist with the Weather Service in Reno, said a fire tornado warning was an unusual alert for his office.

Photos and videos from witnesses on social media showed tornadoes emerging out of intimidating clouds of intense smoke and heat amid singed vegetation.

Gelber said that fire whirls visible on Doppler radar reflected the intensity of the tornadoes.

In a departure from the norm, the fire rotations seen Saturday appeared to be moving clockwise, Gelber said, a difference from the usual counterclockwise direction of tornadoes that form in low pressure systems.

A fire tornado during the 2018 Carr Fire in Northern California tore through neighbourhoods in Redding, California, a city about 257km north of Sacramento.

Eight people died as a result of the fire and about 40,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes.

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