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Firenadoes: Symptom of a ‘new wildfire normal’?

Firenadoes: Symptom of a ‘new wildfire normal’?

From the Series: Wildfire County - Planning for the next big blaze series
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“Firenado” sounds like the title for a campy science-fiction flick, but it’s a real phenomenon that firefighters say they’re seeing more often as wildfires worldwide become more intense.

Not everyone can agree on the point at which a “fire whirl” becomes a “fire tornado,” but people tend to know one when they see it.

Most agree a fire whirl is relatively small, lasts only a short period of time and lacks the power to move objects, while a firenado is big, moves through a conflagration for an extended period of time and can rip the roofs off houses, according to reports from the fire lines.

The 2018 fires in Northern California spawned multiple fire whirls and firenadoes, and the Carr fire that struck the Redding area unleashed perhaps the most extreme example.

Video taken by residents and firefighters captured a swirling tower of flame and smoke reportedly a quarter of a mile high, allegedly generating winds estimated at 140 mph and lasting up to 80 minutes. 

Firefighters have known for decades that big wildfires create their own weather as they draw in cool air at the base to feed the flames.

Moisture from burning trees and other vegetation is heated by the fire to create a moist air mass that rises, carrying flaming embers aloft.

As the warm, moist air rises, it tends to rotate, much like it does in a regular tornado, drawing up not only burning embers and long tongues of flame but also tree limbs, brush, home siding and shingles, potted plants, patio furniture, small animals and anything else that isn’t nailed down.

Scientists say they are baffled when it comes to explaining why firenadoes are suddenly becoming more common.

Some have said it’s from an overall increase in atmospheric temperatures due to global warming.

Others say it’s because wildfires are moving more into urban areas where burning homes and cars increase the amount of heat the flames generate.

Either way, firenadoes are elevating the "new normal" for wildfires to a more dangerous level.

Fire officials attribute Santa Barbara County’s high risk, in part, to its location in the wildfire “Goldilocks zone." The county sits far enough north to get good winter rainfall, but it’s far enough south to feel the Southern California summer heat that cooks fuels tinder-dry.

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County Reporter/Associate Editor

Lee Central Coast Newspapers associate editor Mike Hodgson covers Santa Barbara County government and events and issues in Santa Ynez Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MHodgsonSYVNews.

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