Fire Cloud from 38,000 Feet

By Tom Yulsman | June 24, 2013 2:56 pm

A fire cloud from the West Fork Complex of wildfires, as seen from a commercial airliner flying at 38,000 feet over Colorado yesterday. (Photograph: Courtesy Elizabeth Rothman)

Yesterday, a friend posted to my Facebook timeline some photos she snapped from a commercial flight as it cruised at 38,000 feet over Colorado’s raging West Fork Complex of wildfires. This one is so dramatic I thought I’d share it with you.

It’s a pyrocumulus, or “fire cloud.” The intense heat of the inferno below has forced air to rise, leading to cooling and condensation of water vapor, and thereby forming a giant cloud that has risen to extraordinary heights. More about them in a minute. But first…

The West Fork Complex, which consists of three wildfires, has consumed more than 75,000 acres and is zero percent contained. It is burning in steep terrain covered in beetle-killed trees, which makes for extremely difficult and hazardous conditions for firefighters.

Unfortunately, the weather is not cooperating in their efforts. From

This is the fifth day in a row that the complex has been under a Red Flag Warning. Wind gusts reaching 50 mph were reported on the ridgetops with gusts to 35 mph at lower elevations. Relative humidity was reported in the teens dropping to single digits. Another Red Flag Warning has been issued for tomorrow.

I’m horrified by the ferocity of the fires. But I’m also fascinated by the science of fire behavior, as well as the phenomenon of pyrocumulus. If you are too, you must check out the pyroCb blog, from the folks at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. They’ve got satellite images as well as pictures taken from the ground and the air. Here’s a sample:

An aerial view of the West Fork Complex. (Image: pyroCb Blog, CIMSS)

You might also be interested in the June 23rd entry in the “Smog Blog“. They don’t link to individual stories, so scroll down to find that post, which includes many remote sensing images.

Lastly, Climatecentral has published a story that I wish I had written: “8 Images to Understand the Drought in the Southwest.” It’s got the remote sensing angle that is an important aspect of ImaGeo. And it provides important contextual background to the wildfire story.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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