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'Firenadoes' Are Real, And We Just Had A Big One In Riverside

A funnel of fire and smoke amid a smoky grey scene with a fire truck prked by a road
A tornado-like funnel of fire and smoke next to a truck fighting the French Fire in Central California on August 25, 2021.
(David McNew
Getty Images)
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‘Firenadoes’ Are Real, And We Just Had A Big One In Riverside

In what sounds like a Syfy Channel movie premise, "firenadoes" are real and are not uncommon in certain wildfire conditions. In the past week, one happened in Kern County during the French Fire and on Sunday, another one popped up closer to home, in Riverside County during the Chaparral Fire.

The wildfire, which broke out in the Cleveland National Forest on Saturday and has led to evacuation orders, continues to burn in Riverside and San Diego counties.

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Colloquially called fire tornados or “firenadoes," the phenomenon is technically known as a fire whirl, but the fast-spinning visual and physical effects are pretty similar to those of actual tornadoes.

So if the destructive nature of a traditional tornado isn’t enough to fuel your nightmares, let us introduce you to the terrifying reality of a powerful twister that’s also on fire.

How ‘Firenadoes’ Form

Fire tornados happen in extreme fire conditions when strong winds push warm air upward to create a whirling vortex shape.

Wildfires can sometimes be so severe they create their own weather patterns, including winds. In the case of the Chaparral Fire, the sea breeze coming from the south and west in the afternoon to evening “was fueling [the flames] to turn around in a counterclockwise direction, kind of like a tornado,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Adam Roser.

Not An Actual Tornado, But Just As Destructive

Roser said the dynamics are similar to a tornado in that a lower level of air spins up from the bottom. But tornados come from clouds above while firenadoes form from the ground.

Either way, the powerful winds in the vortex can cause havoc as they blow flames around. “They can be very destructive as they impact any structures,” Roser said.

Firefighters battling the Chaparral Fire can expect cooler temperatures ahead, but the southerly winds coming from the ocean in the evening hours will continue to be a challenge.

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