A tornado made of fire. Seriously.

By Phil Plait | August 25, 2010 10:01 am

[UPDATE: a second, even better video of a fire tornado in Hawaii has turned up. My apocalypse shelter is stocked and ready.]

OK, I pretty much thought I had seen it all.

Then I saw this video of a tornado (really, a dust devil) made of fire. Of FIRE. Via The Telegraph:

Holy Frak.

I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising; after all, shear winds blowing over warm ground is how dust devils form, and what’s warmer than ground with fire on it? In retrospect, actually, I’m surprised this event is as rare as it is! I see dust devils all the time, and heck, they even form on Mars.

Still, wow, a fire tornado! Amazing. And thank FSM for science. If I didn’t understand why something like this could form and I saw it headed for me, I imagine I’d be looking — running — for the nearest shaman.

Tip o’ the fireman’s helmet to Fark.


Comments (84)

  1. Mike C

    That is awesome. I’ve never seen one of those before.

  2. This type of occurrence could be a real-world inspiration for “pillar of fire” legends, or even stories of dragons.

  3. Jim Craig

    This is so awesome.

    Phil is the best source for awesome on the interwebs!

  4. Joe

    Coolest thing I’ve seen today, though it is still pretty early.

    It actually reminds me a bit of the pillar of fire from the movie the Ten Commandments.

  5. Sam42

    Supercool. So, is ball lightning a thing?

  6. Ken Morrison

    There was a Discovery channel documentary on last week that described this happening after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

  7. ChaosRu

    I saw one of these inside of a building while I was photographing a controlled training burn for some local fire departments. Everyone’s reaction was a little irrational, but fire never seemed more malevolent or alive until that moment.

  8. I’ve read this happened in Dresden too and it didn’t take any nukes.

  9. Jack Mitcham

    Is it necessary to use a video that auto-plays?

  10. I wonder if there’s a name for that. (checks) Apparently, it’s called a fire whirl. Huh, I would’ve gone with something more ominous, like “plasma vortex” or “flaming twister of death” or something. “Fire whirl” sounds like a carnival ride.

  11. Pablo

    We don’t have the big tornadoes or hurricanes in Brazil but we have the scary FIRE DEVIL!

  12. Ken Morrison

    Timechick – true. The vortex(s) are not caused by the nuclear reaction, but the air’s movement around many smaller fires.

  13. Yatima

    Saw them at Burning Man in 2001. Up there with the moons of Jupiter, Newgrange and La Sagrada Familia as one of the most freakin’ awesome things I ever laid eyes on.

  14. My photography professor in college would go out every spring and take photo of the ranchers burning the Flint Hills prairie in Kansas. He had a great photo of a whirl right before it hit the fire line.


  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    Spectacular, eerie but deadly.

    Do they call them bushfires in Brazil as well then? Always thought that was an Aussie term for them.

    Thinking of the Martian dust devils; I read somewhere the other day that the Mars Exploration Rovers – Opportunity & Spirit have now endured the worst of the Martian winter and are now looking forward to more dust devils doing some spring cleaning on their panels to help tidy them up for hopefully one more Martian year of exploration and roving! :-)

    Not fire dust devils though – they don’t get *those* on Mars!


    “There were no fires in the Martian desert. In fact, of all the worlds in the solar system only Earth with its oxygen-rich atmosphere knew fire.”
    – Page 43, ‘Voyage’, Stephen Baxter, Harper-Collins, 1996.

  16. Wow. That is cool. I wonder why I think the most dangerous things are cool.

  17. Yowsa!

    I am reminded of what a scientist at the scene of the Mt Pinatubo eruption said as the volcano went into a new and scarier tectonic paroxysm: “Fill your pockets full of jam, because we’re all about to be toast!”

  18. Jim

    So frickin’ cool!

  19. Just noticed the autoplay, and turned it off.

  20. This reminds me of the George Carlin piece “Coast to Coast Emergency.”

  21. Mike G

    The Coast Guard recently got some footage of a fire vortex in a controlled burn in the Gulf of Mexico. Watch the left end of the line of flames: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxNkDyt6IjI

  22. Joel Petersen

    I do controlled burns of prairie remnants every year in Wisconsin and usually see several “fire devils” each year. It’s not uncommon for them to be 10 meters tall and last for 10 seconds. They’re very exciting to watch. You’re welcome to come help me do controlled burns next April. http://ThePrairieEnthusiasts.com/

  23. Game on , the christians were right, everyone prepare for rapture! JK

  24. Brian Schlosser

    “If I didn’t understand why something like this could form and I saw it headed for me, I imagine I’d be looking — running — for the nearest shaman.”

    Even knowing what this is, I might still be tempted to run to the nearest shaman. He might have a rootcellar or someplace else to hide.

    Actually, if i saw this, I’d just be RUNNING. Knowing what it is doesn’t make you immune to being roasted! 😀


    That phenomenon is seen in firestorms, and are thought to have been part of the mechanism of large urban fires such as the Great Fire of Rome, the Great Fire of London, the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, and the fires resulting from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Firestorms were also created by the firebombing raids of World War II in cities like London (during The Blitz), Tokyo, Kobe, Hiroshima, Hamburg and Dresden.

  26. Shaun Ot

    Now if they had this in the movie Twister, when it picked up the cow they could have had barbecue and collected scientific data about tornados.

  27. Jamey

    I thought these were not-uncommon occurances in brushfires and forest fires, especially in the western US.

  28. AJ Hawks

    I really miss when BAD ASTRONOMY was about Astronomy. Phil, why don’t you ever post about NASA happenings, or meteor showers, etc?

    Seems like lately your posts have been about anything BUT astronomy.

  29. I worked as a wildland firefighter for 8 seasons and would see these on the more extreme fires. As scary as they are, its a lot worse when they are lifting burning logs and throwing them around. o.O

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    @10. Tree Lobsters :

    “Fire whirl” sounds like a carnival ride.

    Or a hot (spicy?) chocolate treat! 😉

  31. Oh yeah. I saw one back when I was still working the family farm. I was driving the tractor back from the field when I saw a twisting column of flame shooting into the sky… what, I was in the cab of a tractor, it was a bit more than a mile away, the column appeared to touch the electric wires right next to me… I’m getting numbers that I don’t want to admit and I’m the one who saw it. A few hundred feet tall and still flaming most of the way up.

    The people who owned that field were burning off something. I wanna say it was a pile of stubble left after harvest. Why they threw it in a pile instead of burning the field escapes me.

  32. AJ Hawks (28) You mean like the Saturn pic I posted last night, or the binary star system yesterday, or the nebula the day before, or the Jupiter impact, or the Perseids, or the black hole before that…?

    Also, this may help.

  33. Nentuaby

    You say you’re surprised they’re as rare as they are, but actually they aren’t rare at all… They’re a big part of what makes wildland firefighting f’ing scary work.

  34. rob

    you tell him Phil!

  35. I think I like Pablo’s (11) recommendation of “Fire Devil” – that’s much scarier than the “fire whorl/whirl” that does, truly, sound like an amusement ride (Tree Lobster – 10). And I think does lend credence to some of the more interesting historical/biblical stories (Neal – 2). I mean, imagine an EF5 Fire Devil! Talk about quick conversions to a religion of your choice! :)
    Thanks Phil for not only exploring the universe *above* us, but the universe *about* us here on Earth as well!

  36. If I saw something like that coming toward me and didn’t know what it was, I wouldn’t go running to the nearest shaman. I would go toward it to figure out what it was.

    It’s a wonder I have lived this long!

    I have seen several tornadoes (one much closer than most people would want to) but never one of these guys.

  37. Jearley

    I think that I once saw a film of this sort of thing above a lava flow as well, as gases within the magma burst out and ignited. Looked really cool. I wonder if this is one of the things that gave rise to fables about elementals? That thing make a pretty good ‘fire demon’…

  38. Sam

    These are a common occurrence at the very large structure burns held at the Burning Man event in Nevada (starting this coming Monday!). Large sculptures, some multiple stories tall, are burned on Saturday and Sunday nights of the event, and these fire tornados at a big source of excitement, especially when they start meandering toward the crowd. They always go out before they hit the people, but you still have a “hot air and smoke tornado”, which is intense to have pass through your seating area.

    If you search online for videos of either the “man burn” or the “temple burn” at Burning Man, you’ll probably get to see some in action.

  39. Robert E

    Saw several fire devils when I was younger and helping dad burn off the fields (Oklahoma).
    Always impressive.

  40. Gustavo

    Dude, this awesome, its just a dragon, but without the dragon, pretty cool, I love it!!!

  41. Um…. Tell us again why we’re not supposed to be worried about the approach of 2012.

  42. If you run for the nearest Shaman, make sure he drops a Fire Resistance Totem.

    A Windfury Totem would DEFINITELY be the wrong tool for this encounter!

  43. These are quite common in Australia large summer bush fires are the norm.

  44. Mister Earl

    And here, we can see the elusive firenado in its natural habitat.

  45. Gerard


    I was there too! Absolutely special night and amazing. Gotta say friend, it seemed like dust devils spawning off of the conflagration. But the only reason I scrolled down to the comments was to mention BM so thanks.


  46. Michael

    Charmander used Fire Spin.
    It’s super effective!
    Traffic fainted!

  47. Taiga

    So did the voice of God, or rather the Flying Sphagetti Monster, speak out of it? 😉

  48. shawmutt

    Wow, that’s hot!

  49. Firemancarl

    Was going to post earlier, but for some reason, work computer didn’t like the blog!

    At any rate, I wouldn’t call them rare. Here in the US, you can see a good number of them when the Santa Anas give the fire blowtorch like conditions. LAFD and LACoFD see these on a “regular” basis.

    Phil! Check this out, and notice how calm the brothers are. And this one is haulin’ arse!

    Here in Floor E Duh, they are rare, but do happen.

  50. Steve Huntwork

    Hamberg Germany during WWII…

  51. Menyambal

    There’s a picture of a fire whirl in this Cracked.com article on badassery. Scroll down to #7. (You might be amused by some of the other stuff at Cracked, as I am.)

    I’ve seen a few whirls in campfires, but the one of the oddest things that I have ever seen was whirls in the mist over a river I was canoeing on. The whirls were not vertical, or even straight. They just snaked through the mist, then faded out again. They were less than ten feet away, maybe six inches in diameter.

  52. Just a quibble, but this is *not* a tornado. This is a whirlwind, or dust devil. Torandoes are large rotating columns of air that descend from a wall cloud (a really big thunderhead) and make contact with the ground. They are rotating because of the force of their parent cloud. Whirlwinds are smaller rotating columns of air that form due to spinning winds at the surface and rise up into the sky. The top of a whirlwind is on the order of magnitude of 100 feet high, whereas a tornado is normally 50,000 feet high or thereabouts. Two totally different phenomena.

    Now that the meteorologist’s rant is over… very cool video! I’d kind of like to see one of these in person… from a distance, of course!

  53. Richard Woods

    @ Robert E #39:

    That’s why Turner Turnpike has (or used to have … I haven’t driven it in a long time) signs advising “Do Not Drive Into Smoke”. :-)

  54. eyesoars

    RE: Travis @52:

    Dust devils can be quite high: typically they go up to cloud base, wherever that is (often many thousands of feet), since they are largely responsible for clouds. In dryer air, they frequently do not form clouds, but may still reach upwards 10,000′ or more. In the western U.S. you can often see them, particularly if there is a source of dust nearby (cars on dirt roads, plowing, …). Their upward speeds are up to 30 MPH or more.

    In the U.S. and Australia, I’ve seen as many as half-a-dozen of these crossing an airport at once in dusty conditions. In wetter conditions, their presence can often be inferred because multiple windsocks point at them as they move across the ground.

    As a glider pilot, I love them. They enable multi-hundred kilometer flights sans engine and propeller.

  55. Denni

    I was shocked when Phil and a number of people said they had never seen a fire tornado before. See them all the time in forest fires. But then again, I live in fire country (Northern California).

    All right everyone, be more observant!

  56. Tom

    Cool. I’ve seen this happen, but in miniature.

    20 years ago while camping, we were using a wok over the campfire. The wind picked up, and stoked the fire. The fire got too hot, igniting the cooking oil in the wok. The fire from the burning oil formed a fire twister about half a meter high, probably due to the interaction between the rising hot air and the wind. It lasted about 20 seconds, until all the oil was consumed.

  57. JB of Brisbane

    @Ken Morrison, all the way back at #12 – FY&EI, the plural of “vortex” is “vortices”.

  58. Buzz Mega

    Tornados are twisters that suck up. This is a fire phenomenon similar to a dust devil that is made of heated air that rises due to its lower density.

    Everybody calls them fire tornados, but they’re not propelled by an overhead storm as the dictionary defines tornado.

    Metaphorically you get away with it.

    But watch out. The word police patrol this area. For instance: ‘Dwarf planet’.

  59. Get thee to Burning Man. They’re a dime a dozen when something big burns.

  60. Toni

    I saw two of these during the wildfires in San Diego 2003. I’d estimate one of them to be at least 150 feet high, quite impressive. However, they’re not as cool when you see them raging through peoples homes….

  61. Crazy but kool looking hope it doesn’t ever get in the paths of people or animals. Wow

  62. baldeagle
  63. Ginger Yellow

    Now all we need is a tornado over a salt flat and the fundies will go crazy.

  64. GCA

    Saw a huge one a few years ago in Eastern Washington State near Yakima. A brush fire burned its’ way up a box canyon-The whirl was by my approximation 150′ high-very impressive

  65. Danilo A.

    ok, I live here in Brazil, São Paulo state, where this fire mini-tornado happened. The funny thing is that the mediocre local news station presented these images only to picture the lack of humidity this time of the year, as if nothing special was happening…

  66. Bud Tugley

    Yes, thanks to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for science. Praise his noodly name!
    That is what you meant, of course.

  67. Soon to be a movie on the SyFy Channel 😉

  68. Bud

    Weren’t these the reason why chicago almost burned to the ground during the greate chicago fire? I believe sections of the city were separated to prevent fires from spreading but the fire vortex would hop over the voids.

  69. BluSTi

    Fight enough wildland fire and you’ll see these. the few that I saw in northern montana were between 150′ and 300′ high and though I was a quarter mile away, you could feel the heat increase as the whirls got bigger and more defined. Of all the fire behavior i’ve seen, the firewhirls are my favorite. Wish I had gotten a picture…

    the fire name was the “swan fire” if anybody cares…

  70. ULTRON 5

    Black page doesnt look like fire tornado !

  71. brad denniston

    When it happened in Dresden, about 500,000 people died.

  72. John

    Actually it’s a vortex. Not a tornado at all. Seriously…

  73. Scott

    Happens every year at Burning Man. Sometimes when the man burns on Saturday night, but almost always when the temple burns on Sunday. Imagine 20K people all being quiet and meditative (in a circle a couple hundred yards across, at minimum safe distance) when a 4-story scrimshaw building starts burning like tinder, then all of them drawing in an awed breath as 3 fire tornadoes ~150ft tall burst into the sky, dancing around each other slowly.

    The first time is an absolutely awesome experience, and completely understandable why someone a few thousand years ago would think that must be an emissary from god.

  74. I wonder if there’s a name for that. (checks) Apparently, it’s called a fire whirl. Huh, I would’ve gone with something more ominous.

  75. fcgadget

    back in 1980 at the Panorama fire in Cajon Pass there was one of these caused by edddies of the down canyon Santa Anas that was about a quarter mile across. It sucked the tin roof off of a mechanics’ shed and sent the tin hundreds of feet in the air, looking like glittery confetti from a distance. The shed was NOT even scorched. Made it pretty interesting for the fire crews in and around it!

  76. AshleyKetchum

    Charizard used Fire Tornado… It was super effective!

  77. Lilya Makhmal

    Looks like HAARP.

  78. Lilya Makhmal

    How many of you Army guys recognize this symbol? It belongs to the Army’s Chemical Corp.’Elementis Regamus Proelium’ meaning ‘WE RULE THE BATTLEFIELD THRU THE ELEMENTS’?

    HAARP is our Military’s weapon of mass destruction.
    No one will challenge or invade America. She will continue to be the greatest country in the world.



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