Tornadic Firestorm? Carr Fire spawns tornado-like rotation, damage patterns

The massive Carr Fire in and around Redding, California has now torched more than 40,000 acres.

Temperatures reached 115 degrees in the fire zone Thursday, and the fire blew up generating giant pyrocumulus clouds (flammagenitus) visible from space on weather satellites orbiting 22-thousand miles above the earth.

Tornadic firestorm?

There is some debate in the meteorology community as to the accuracy of calling fire whirls “fire tornadoes.” The size and formation mechanisms of the two phenomena are meteorologically different. But the circulation over Redding, California last night seems to have exhibited tornadic characteristics. Take a look at this time-lapse of the fire’s circulation.

Here’s another view, this one is in real-time. You can clearly see the tornado-like circulation.

Tornado-like circulation detected on Doppler

In fact, the fire-driven updraft circulation pattern is so well-formed it’s visible on Doppler radar images extending up to 18-thousand feet aloft. This is basically what a tornado vortex signature (TVS) looks like on Doppler.

Tornadic damage patterns at ground level 

It should be noted that ambient winds near Redding at the time of the fire were fairly low, and mostly under 10 mph. We know the intense updrafts inside fires create their own weather patterns. The observed damage patterns at ground level clearly indicate winds likely in excess of 60 mph. This is evidence of severe mesoscale tornado-like winds on the ground.

The Carr Fire not only produced extreme fire behavior in Redding last night. It also appears to have produced a large and well-formed updraft circulation with tornado-like characteristics.

Another urban firestorm

The damage in the fire zone is devastating. It’s clear that a combination of extreme heat and low relative humidity produced extreme fire behavior.

As we’ve seen in recent years, urban firestorms are becoming all too common.

Wildfire-climate change connection 

Climate science has clearly established that the length of fire seasons and the number of large fires in the American west are increasing due to planetary warming.

Image via Climate Central.

We’re witnessing climate change in action

I spent 9 years forecasting weather and reporting on wildfires working as a meteorologist in Arizona. I’ve talked with numerous wildfire experts about trends in extreme fire behavior. The science may still be young on the impacts of climate change on this extreme fire behavior.

But it’s meteorological common sense to expect hotter temperatures are driving the increased urban firestorms we’ve seen recently. My professional view is, we’re not only seeing more large wildfires, we’re now witnessing climate change in action through more extreme firestorms that are increasingly impacting urban areas.

We’re going to see more cities like Santa Rosa, Redding, Santa Barbara torched by an increasingly dangerous breed of firestorms.

This, unfortunately, is the new normal in our 21st-century climate. And the new normal will likely get even worse.