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Posted at 02:24 PM ET, 09/20/2012

What the heck is a fire tornado?


Smoke devils or fire tornadoes spin up at the Burning Man festival in Nevada in early September (Mike Barry)
A frightening video of a so-called fire tornado setting ablaze the Australian outback is spreading like ...

So how did we explain this phenomenon?

NOAA has come to the rescue. It writes on its Facebook page:

“While rare, fire tornadoes (also known as fire whirls) generally form when superheated air near the surface of a large fire zone rises rapidly in an airmass where sufficient horizontal or vertical vorticity (spin in the atmosphere) is also present. Much like a dust devil or whirlwind, the rapidly rising air above a wildfire can accelerate and turn the local vorticity into a tight vertical vortex, now composed of fire instead of dust.”

Keep reading for fire tornado video and imagery...

Here’s the video of the viral Australia fire tornado...

Video of Australian fire tornado upload to YouTube by stilltalkincrazy

Additional information on fire tornadoes can be found at the Grand Forks, North Dakota National Weather Service website. It developed the website after a fire tornado touched down in the Langdon, N.D. area on October 24, 2011.


Fire tornado near Langdon, ND on October 24, 2011. Photos and locations are courtesy by Kelly Schwartz of Langdon ND.

It turns out Capital Weather Gang reader Mike Barry recently witnessed something resembling a fire tornado while attending the “Burning Man” Festival in the Black Rock desert in northern Nevada (see top image).

In an email, Barry wrote “fire whirls (smoke devils?) marched out, one right after the other, during the burning of the man effigy.”

“I have never seen anything like it...they were absolutely amazing...and very very big,” Barry said. “I’m assuming it is partly meteorological, as it really was just smoke...never saw any real flames in it like you see in some big forest fires.”

He added: “I would say at least 50 of these guys appeared in formation from the fire within 5 minutes. Amazing to see.”

Since these whirls didn’t contain flames but just smoke, they may be best described as smoke devils as Barry suggests.

Here’s a video of these whirls recorded by Burning Man Festival attendee, Joshua Padgett, and posted to YouTube:

While out West, Barry also encountered the fire tornado’s cousin, the more common dust devil, pictured below:


A dust devil seen in northern Nevada in early September. (Mike Barry)

By  |  02:24 PM ET, 09/20/2012

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