Fire + Tornado = Fire Tornado

When wildfires combine with wild winds, beautiful—and terrifying—things can happen.
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Chris Tangey/Vimeo

On March 14, 2014, in a wildlife preserve near the Denver airport, firefighters started a fire. It was a "controlled burn," a practice typically made during cooler times of year—meant to prevent the buildup of weeds and other plants that can serve as tinder for wildfires in warmer months. 

March 14, 2014 was a weird day, though. The winds over the preserve shifted, suddenly. So suddenly, in fact, that they began sucking the fire's debris—glowing embers, singed tumbleweeds—into the air. Finally, the fire itself got sucked into the vortex, creating a phenomenon that you cannot help but think of as ... a fire tornado.

Or as, more accurately: A FIRE TORNADO. 

While we shall indeed abide by the FIRE TORNADO terminology, the phenomenon, Slate's Phil Plait points out, is more accurately thought of as "pretty much a dust devil with fire added."

As Plait describes it:

Imagine: a fire starts. As the air is heated above the fire, it rises, and the upward motion can be very strong. This leaves a lower pressure spot at the fire, and the air from outside the fire rushes in to fill the gap. The air is very turbulent, and as the inward-moving air from one side hits air coming in from the other, swirls can form. These get amplified by the constant gale of air, and rotation on a larger scale can get started and sustained. The whirlwind gets pumped by the hot air rising, and the next thing you know you've got a full-blown tornado of fire. 

Yep: a full-blown tornado of fire.

After Plait posted his FIRE TORNADO video last weekend, he got a message from Chris Tangey, a photographer and videographer who specializes in scenes from Australia’s Outback. Tangey, it turns out, had taken similar footage—of a fire tornado that blew through that Outback in 2012

It looks a bit like lightning, sent from the ground. It is beautiful. It is terrifying. Tangey describes it as a "pillar of fire." 

Hat tip Chris Heller

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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