In an apocalyptic scene, witnesses of the deadly Carr Fire near Redding, California, watched an enormous raging vortex of fire and smoke plow through their town on Thursday (July 26). The terrifying cyclone of flames was caught on camera and shared by ABC News.
It's not unusual for fire whirls — also called fire devils, fire tornadoes or firenadoes — to erupt out of large wildfires such as this one. They're similar to a dust devil or a whirlwind, and occur when hot, dry air rises rapidly from the ground and forms a vertical column until it reaches cooler air high in the atmosphere. As more flames and hot air get pulled into the column, the structure starts to swirl into a vortex that pulls burning embers, flaming-hot gases and debris with it, creating a violent and dangerous tower of flames.
Typically, fire tornadoes are a few hundred feet high and last only minutes or seconds, but this one was different, KQED reported. On Thursday night, the fire near Redding exploded into a colossal fire tornado that reached 18,000 feet (550 meters) in the air and lasted nearly an hour, KQED reported. [See Photos of the Carr Fire Raging Across Northern California]
"It's very rare as well to have these really persistent long-lived events like that," Neil Lareau, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, told KQED. "To get a big one like this is really scary."
Lareau told KQED that gigantic fire tornadoes have erupted during California wildfires before, but not in such densely populated areas, as was the case with this one. Last week, Redding reached 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius), which, Lareau said, helped create the perfect conditions for such an extreme fire event.
The Carr Fire has burned nearly 104,000 acres (42,000 hectares) since July 23, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Thousands of people have lost their homes, and six people, including two firefighters, have lost their lives. The Cal Fire website lists "mechanical failure of vehicle" as the cause of the out-of-control inferno.
Original article on Live Science.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
Kimberly has a bachelor's degree in marine biology from Texas A&M University, a master's degree in biology from Southeastern Louisiana University and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a former reference editor for Live Science and Space.com. Her work has appeared in Inside Science, News from Science, the San Jose Mercury and others. Her favorite stories include those about animals and obscurities. A Texas native, Kim now lives in a California redwood forest.