Just after the Woolsey Fire, several Malibu residents from different neighborhoods reported seeing fire tornadoes—seemingly apocalyptic visions in a time of already extreme stress. It was such a rare and little-known phenomenon at the time that no one knew what to make of it, despite numerous eyewitness accounts from those who had stayed behind to protect their properties .
In some reports, even most firefighters didn’t realize that such a thing as a fire tornado was possible.
Since 2018, however, it’s become a much more commonly witnessed occurrence as dozens of wildfires raged throughout California and the West following a drought. Scientists now know that so-called “firenadoes”—also known as fire tornadoes, fire twisters, fire devils or fire whirls—form when certain extreme fire conditions are present. Strong winds push warm air upward to create a whirling vortex of air with fire in it that is powerful enough to impact a structure. So, as if a regular tornado wasn’t nightmare enough, now it’s possible to have one that’s on fire.
Geologist Dr. Pat Abbott, among other scientists, say the phenomenon is due to global warming—human activity has broken previous patterns and fires that now burn hotter and bigger can actually create their own extreme weather patterns, including winds and funnels of flame and smoke. A firenado in the 2018 Carr Fire in Northern California achieved rotating windspeeds of 140 mph and transported embers miles away. Just last August, firenadoes were observed in both Riverside and Kern counties.
Adam Roser, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the fast-spinning visual and physical effects are pretty similar to those of actual tornadoes, but tornados come from clouds while firenadoes form from the ground.
In an interview after the Woolsey Fire, resident George Poptsis, who lost his home, described the fire tornado he witnessed in Malibu Park: “The wind just stopped and went negative. It was like nature was inhaling, and the fire turned into a tornado … and it was coming at me, and it was screaming … and the whole mountain lit up in a spontaneous ignition … Homes weren’t just catching on fire; they were exploding.”