What is a Firenado?

Quck answer

A firenado, also known as a fire whirl, is a rare weather phenomenon that occurs during intense wildfires. It is a spinning vortex of flames and smoke that looks like a tornado. Firenados are formed when hot air rises rapidly from the ground and creates a vertical column of rotating fire. The strong winds within the firenado can cause it to move erratically, making it extremely dangerous. Firenados can reach heights of over 1,000 feet and generate intense heat and destructive power. They pose a significant threat to firefighters and can exacerbate the spread of wildfires.

You’ve probably heard of tornadoes. You may even be aware that some tornadoes are made of fish. However, were you aware that there are tornadoes made of fire? That’s correct. Today we will be learning about firenadoes!

Firenadoes are sometimes referred to as “fire whirls.” They are also known as “fire devils” and “fire twisters.” They are enormous columns of fire that rise and twist high into the sky. Sounds similar to a tornado, doesn’t it? Many people think so, and that is where the name comes from.

However, experts say that firenadoes are more comparable to dust devils, which are swirling clouds of hot air, sand, and dirt. Firenadoes and dust devils do not form in the same way tornadoes do. While tornadoes require specific atmospheric conditions, firenadoes form from conditions that are much closer to the ground.

So, what is the recipe for a firenado? It is quite simple. Just combine very hot, dry air with fire. You may have heard before that heat rises, and it is true. When a large amount of hot air rises in a small area, it does so in columns. As more and more hot, dry air rises in a column, the column begins to spin.

Have you ever sat in the center of a merry-go-round? If so, you would know that the center rotates much faster than the edges. The same principle applies inside a column of hot air. The particles in the center of the column move much faster than those on the outer edge.

Therefore, as the air continues to rise and spin, it moves toward the center of the column. This causes the air to spin faster and faster. As it does so, it starts to draw in other objects around it. It might pick up dirt, sticks, or even fire. As the spinning air pulls the fire into its rotation, the fire twists and turns with the column, creating one of the most terrifying phenomena known to mankind.

How common are firenadoes? They probably occur more frequently than you think. They often form during wildfires. They are typically a few hundred feet tall and only last a few minutes. However, larger firenadoes have also been documented.

In 2018, a firenado that reached 18,000 feet into the air was recorded in California. This occurred during the severe Carr Fire, a wildfire that lasted over a month. But this firenado was unique not only in its size but also in its formation. It was formed with the assistance of a cloud, combined with the upward movement of air. It is one of only two firenadoes on record to have done so, making it very similar to an actual tornado.

Other firenadoes have caused record-breaking devastation over the years. One of the earliest recorded firenadoes was in 1871. Several firenadoes were part of a massive, fast-moving wildfire that swept through Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The fire and its fire whirls caused immense destruction.

Firenadoes do not typically last long, but they are still one of the most destructive forces out there. If you encounter a firenado, it is best to move in the opposite direction. While they may be a fascinating sight, firenadoes move quickly and are extremely dangerous.

Try It Out

Engage in some of the activities listed below with a friend or family member:

  • Curious about the appearance of a firenado? Take a look at this image. Show it to someone you know and explain how firenadoes are formed. What are the conditions that lead to firenadoes? What scientific concepts are involved?
  • Many firenadoes occur during wildfires. What measures can individuals take to prevent wildfires? Seek assistance from a friend or family member to conduct research. Then, create a wildfire prevention poster. Include at least five ways people can contribute to preventing wildfires. Make sure to incorporate an attention-grabbing picture!
  • Were you aware that not all forest fires are harmful? It’s true! Discover the reasons behind this and share what you’ve learned with a friend or family member. Why are controlled forest fires significant? What benefits do they bring to the environment?

Sources of Wonder

  • https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/science-behind-california-fire-tornado-180969803/ (accessed 14 Oct. 2019)
  • https://www.livescience.com/45676-what-is-a-firenado.html (accessed 14 Oct. 2019)
  • https://phys.org/news/2018-12-creation-deadly-california-firenado.html (accessed 14 Oct. 2019)


1. What is a Firenado?

A Firenado, also known as a fire whirl or fire tornado, is a rare weather phenomenon that occurs during wildfires. It is a swirling column of flames and smoke that looks like a tornado or a cyclone. Firenadoes are formed when intense heat from the fire causes the air to rise rapidly, creating a vortex or a spinning column. These fire whirls can reach high altitudes and can be extremely dangerous as they can spread the fire and cause it to move in unpredictable ways.

2. How are Firenadoes formed?

Firenadoes are formed when a combination of hot air, strong winds, and intense heat from a fire create a spinning vortex. The intense heat causes the air to rise rapidly, creating an updraft. As the hot air rises, it starts to rotate due to the wind patterns and the difference in temperatures. This rotating column of air then pulls in more hot air and flames from the fire, creating a swirling column of fire and smoke.

3. What are the dangers of Firenadoes?

Firenadoes pose significant dangers during wildfires. They can spread the fire rapidly, causing it to move in unpredictable ways. Firenadoes can also throw burning debris, embers, and hot ash over long distances, potentially igniting new fires. The intense heat and high winds generated by firenadoes can make it difficult for firefighters to control the fire and can increase the risk of injury or death. Additionally, the strong winds associated with firenadoes can create erratic fire behavior, making it challenging to predict the fire’s path.

4. How long do Firenadoes last?

The duration of a firenado can vary depending on the intensity of the fire and the atmospheric conditions. Some firenadoes may only last for a few minutes, while others can persist for several hours. The size and strength of the firenado can also impact its duration. Larger and more powerful firenadoes tend to last longer as they have a greater fuel source and can sustain the spinning motion for an extended period.

5. Where are Firenadoes most commonly found?

Firenadoes can occur in any location where wildfires are present. However, they are most commonly found in areas with dry and windy conditions, such as grasslands and forests. Regions prone to wildfires, such as California in the United States or Australia, often experience firenadoes during severe fire seasons. The combination of high temperatures, strong winds, and dry vegetation provides the ideal conditions for the formation of firenadoes.

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