Growing up in California, we had earthquake drills and fire season, which seemed like a fairly good trade-off for tornadoes and hurricanes. Fire season would announce itself with a frosting of ash outside as nearby mountains burned. Of course there were some bad fires, but in my memory, there was nothing close to what we've been seeing lately. The poor Golden State has become home to scenes that look pilfered from an apocalyptic disaster movie. And now the state even has its own tornadoes ... and not just any tornadoes.
Case in point? As Matthew Cappucci in The Washington Post puts it, "California’s Carr Fire may have unleashed the most intense fire tornado ever observed in the U.S."
Welcome to the age of fire tornados, the kind of scary scenarios that scientists told us to expect as climate change starts working its wicked ways on the planet.
The whirling creature of wind and flames was unleashed on July 26 near Redding, with winds so strong that trees were uprooted and stripped of bark. According to the National Weather Service, the flaming twister unleashed winds in excess of 143 mph. Or, the equivalent of an EF3 tornado on the 0-to-5 scale.
“This is historic in the U.S.,” Craig Clements, director of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory, told BuzzFeed News. “This might be the strongest fire-induced tornado-like circulation ever recorded.”
Cappucci explains how the natural menace came to be:
"The tornado formed as the blaze, which has already charred an area three times as large as the District of Columbia, erupted and began to rotate like a supercell thunderstorm. Initially the smoke plume reached about 20,000 feet. That’s not overly impressive for a thunderstorm, but it couldn’t rise any higher: It was trapped beneath an inversion.
That “cap” in the atmosphere caused the smoke to spread out. But around 7:15 p.m. Pacific time, two plumes suddenly managed to break the cap. They rose into an unstable environment and exploded upward, towering to nearly 40,000 feet within just 30 minutes. That extreme, rapid vertical growth of the fire fueled an updraft that eventually would spawn the tornado."
(There is more detailed information at The Post, and graphics that help to explain it too if you are interested.)
Last month took the prize for hottest month of the last three decades in Redding; the area's last five years have ranked as the top five hottest on record in this moisture-starved part of the state.
"Thanks to this combination, increased fire activity is likely in the years ahead – and the uptick we’re seeing now is partially because of climate change," writes Cappucci. "As the planet continues to warm, devastating fire seasons like this in the West will become the near normal."
Is it any wonder that the state is taking such a lead in climate action?