Calif.'s Other Big Problem Amid Blazes: 'Fire Devils'
Fire tornadoes fueled by powerful winds were strong enough to flip cars, damage homes
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 19, 2017 8:17 AM CDT
This July 8, 2017, photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows a large fire whirl in a wildfire east of Santa Maria, Calif.   (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

(Newser) – Like earthquakes can unleash tsunamis, strong winds and the California wildfires apparently set loose another type of natural disaster: fire tornadoes. And the San Francisco Chronicle says the fire-filled tornadoes that hit Santa Rosa last week, driven by nearly 80mph winds, wreaked major havoc, tossing cars, pulling trees out of the ground, and ripping the roofs off of houses. "I've been in this business 30 years and it's the worst I've seen," Scott Upton, a chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, says of the tornadoes created during the Tubbs Fire. The Chronicle explains the science behind the tornado formation: As powerful winds drive the fire's flames into neighborhoods, the heat rises and draws those gusts up with it, creating the tornado, or "fire whirl," a vortex of hot and cool air capable of mass destruction.

This type of event, also referred to as a "fire devil," can be so strong it's capable of lifting an entire home in the air; the paper notes one such incident that took place in 1926. The location of the neighborhoods affected by the Tubbs Fire also exacerbated things: The wind sped up as it pushed the fire through a valley and toward residences, creating what Ken Pimlott, the head of CalFire, calls "a very different kind of fire." It was "almost horizontal," he says. "When it hit those homes, it was like a blowtorch." The Press Democrat details the Tubbs Fire's 12-mile "deadly march" from its point of origin in Calistoga to Santa Rosa. Curious to know what one of these frightening flame-storms looks like without getting too close? Mashable features a video, in which firefighters filmed a recent fire tornado raging through central Portugal. Newsweek has footage, too, out of California and Texas.

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