California's Wildfires Are Spawning 'Fire' Clouds

Pyrocumulus clouds loom large over the Thomas Fire near Carpinteria, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

As the wildfires ravaging Southern California continue to scorch the landscape, residents bearing witness to this destructive force are increasingly staring down flames, smoke and the presence of looming, almost-otherworldly clouds.

These dark and rolling specters sitting over Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are called pyrocumulus clouds, a natural phenomenon that comes from massive wildfires or volcanoes. They are formed when heat from flames creates intense updrafts of smoke, ash and water vapor up to 5 miles high.

Because pyrocumulus clouds are so turbulent, they're capable of manifesting intense winds and altering local weather. These so-called firestorms produce gusts that feel as if they're originating from every point of the compass. As you might expect, this can make conditions on the ground even more dangerous for firefighters.

"The winds are kind of squirrely right now," county fire spokesman Mike Eliason told CBS News. "Some places the smoke is going straight up in the air, and others it's blowing sideways. Depends on what canyon we're in."

In addition to exacerbating strong Santa Ana winds, pyrocumulus clouds can also spread embers, called firebrands, up to 20 miles away. Vegetation previously thought safe behind fire lines can suddenly be struck by these embers, creating new wildfires.

The Thomas Fire, which ignited Dec. 4, has burned more than 235,000 acres and nearly 1,000 structures. According to officials, it's now the fifth largest wildfire in California history, as well as the largest ever for the month of December. As of Dec. 13, the fire was only 25% contained.

For California residents, the site of pyrocumulus clouds may be a phenomenon that haunts the state for years to come.

"This is the new normal," Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference. "We’re about ready to have firefighting at Christmas. This is very odd and unusual."

You can see the formation of an intense pyrocumulus cloud over the Thomas Fire, fueled by dry vegetation in the canyons of the Santa Ynez Valley, in the video below.