A raging wildfire has broken out in the nearby forest. Endless billows of smoke are blackening the sky. But you notice something strange happening. The clouds of smoke start to rapidly spin and churn.
They starts to absorb the fire and ash, turning into an intense, swirling blaze. It’s picking up cars, trees and houses with ease. It’s searing everything in its path. It’s two of nature’s scariest creations combined.
Relentless 240 km/h (150 mph) winds. Scorching 1,100 °C (2,000 °F) flames. Now, it’s towering at a height of up to 45 m (150 ft). Fire tornadoes are destructive forces of nature. They can form during wildfires, fire outbreaks, or even house fires.
Large fires cause columns of hot air to quickly rise from the ground. This is called an updraft. As a result, more air is rapidly drawn in from the sides to replace the rising air.
This causes the columns to swirl into a vortex. Ash, embers, flammable gases and debris are sucked in, turning into a spiral of flame. Fortunately, while fire tornadoes are fairly common, your chances of seeing one are pretty slim. Most fire tornadoes only last a few minutes before they dissipate.
But if you are caught in one, you’ll be in the middle of a deadly situation. Why should you try running away as far as possible? And what areas are safest when there’s a burning tornado?
Step 1: Evacuate
A massive fire tornado is headed your way, but don’t hang around to watch. Get out of the area as quickly as possible. And get as far away from the tornado’s path. It’s likely that people will already be evacuating from a wildfire.
Fire tornadoes can grow to massive proportions. Not only that, their embers can travel up to 1.5 km (1 mi) away. Unlike regular tornado safety precautions, don’t take cover indoors if you have time to leave the area. A fire tornado can kill you with its blistering hot temperatures or set buildings on fire. When in doubt, get out.
But there’s no car nearby. The fire tornado’s catching up, and you’re stuck on foot.
Step 2: Protect Yourself
When you’re near a fire tornado, there’s going to be a lot of embers, debris, and smoke. Cover your mouth and nose with a wet rag or shirt. This should help protect your airways from these hazards.
Next, stay low to the ground. The smoke from the fire will rise up, so get down to minimize the amount of smoke you breathe in.
Step 3: Find a Fireproof Spot
Although fire tornadoes can cause enormous amounts of damage, there are areas that don’t catch on fire. Brick buildings and freshly watered fields may not catch fire, even if embers land there.
These spots could be your best bet if you’re caught in a firenado’s path. Then, grab on to an object that’s securely attached to the ground. The tornado can be strong enough to easily sweep you off your feet.
Step 4: Wait it Out
Everything around you is engulfed in flames, but luckily, the fire isn’t spreading toward you. It’s too dangerous to run. Your only option in a situation like this is to stay down and wait it out. Remember, fire tornadoes are powerful, but brief.
The sounds of debris crashing and the winds howling slowly fade away. You look up. The sky’s still filled with smoke but the swirling fire tornado disappeared. Looks like luck is on your side today.
Now, even though the fire tornado has passed, don’t throw caution to the wind just yet. Try not to touch anything around you, they can still be extremely hot from the fire. Look for emergency responders if you need help and find a nearby shelter if possible. Everything around you is wrecked or burnt to a crisp, but you survived a fire tornado.
- “Whirling Flames: How Fire Tornadoes Work”. Lallanilla, Marc. 2014. livescience.com.
- “Scientist Explains How A Fire Tornado Forms”. 2020. WIRED Videos.
- “California wildfires: What is a firenado?”. 2020. BBC News.
- “What It Feels Like To Be Caught Inside A California Wildfire”. Lizzie Johnson, 2019. Reader’s Digest.
- “To Survive A Firenado, Run Away”. Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief. 2020. greenbuildermedia.com.
- “The Science Behind California’s “Fire Tornado””. Jason Daley, Smithsonian Magazine.