It’s not enough that Arizonians are facing humongous wildfires and air that tastes like burnt spinach, now they have to deal with clumsy storm chasers and fireball-belching pyrotornadoes too?
Thankfully, no. Despite what some websites claim, the video at the bottom of this post, showing a Cartman-sounding chaser yelling at his mom to “[bleeping] GO!” as a fire whirl bears down upon them is not a product of the out-of-control Wallow Fire. The ungodly weather spawn was filmed in August by a firefighter with Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources as a 1,400-acre blaze ate its way up the slope of the Mauna Kea volcano. (The audio was later dubbed by jokers unnamed.) That day, the firefighters simply decided not to fight fire – can you blame them, looking down the barrel of that tiki torch from hell?
Let's talk a little bit more about these flame-filled whirlwinds, though, which are a real-life firefighter's nightmare.
Fire whirls are formed when air rising above a ground fire mixes with churning eddies in the atmosphere. They share similarities with tornadoes but rarely have the same power, physically speaking. A huge one might only have a base a fifth of a mile wide, whereas an EF-4 tornado can be as large as a mile across. Their psychological power, however, is unbeatable: They’re roaring, mephitic funnels of doom that can shoot burning debris thousands of feet into the air, sparking fires in far-off locations.
The terrible twisters typically occur during large forest fires like the kind munching on Arizona, but they've also risen out of urban conflagrations like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when a pyrotornado grabbed smoldering planks and threw them almost half a mile away. A well-documented fire-whirl outbreak occurred in 1926, when lightning flicked an oil storage facility near San Luis Obispo, Calif. The resulting herd of fire-whirls that galloped out of the stricken facility picked up a cottage and dropped it from a height of 150 feet, killing two people inside. Here's part of a recent account of that furious night from the San Luis Obispo fire department (start on page 10 of the PDF if you want to read the whole thing):
Shortly after midnight, Roy and Doris stepped outside for some fresh air and a look see. Just then, another of the large [oil] reservoirs exploded followed immediately by the formation of a fire filled whirlwind. The whirlwind headed straight for the Seeber house and Roy and Doris ran for their lives.
The eddying wind went right through the house and completely demolished it. William and Alfonzo were instantly killed as were all of their livestock and most of three thousand chickens. Van and Miss Seeber had take refuge and were unharmed although she received emotional trauma from which she never fully recovered. The whirlwind continued across Edna Road, causing damage to several other homes and agricultural buildings as well as killing livestock along the way. Roy Van’s car was found the next day several hundred feet from where it had been parked, a burned and twisted wreck.
A long-lasting fire whirl was documented over a burning wheat field in Kansas in 2005. Stretching 200 meters into the fevered sky, it lasted 20 minutes before depleting its fuel reserves. You can read a detailed account of the meteorological conditions around that fire whirl in this great photo-heavy PDF from the Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology.