"Firenadoes": A New Normal?

CA’s Carr Fire develops terrifying tornadoes of fire.

On July 23rd, 2018, the sixth most destructive California wildfire in history, the Carr Fire, started in Shasta County. Since then, the fire has burned more than 227,000 acres and is 85% contained. Although this disastrous fire is not the biggest the United States has experienced, it’s manifesting in very unusual and dangerous ways.

Around the time the fire first started, Roger Gray, a Navy veteran, put himself in extreme and imminent danger by refusing to vacate his home in Redding, CA. Instead, he worked tirelessly for nearly half a day to prepare his house for the impending disaster. However, Gray was not ready for what was coming his way. In the distance, he noticed plumes of smoke swirling together into what is often referred to as a “fire whirl” or a “firenado.” Although his wife fled town, Gray stayed behind intent on braving the massive whorl of smoke, ash, and flames that was drawing increasingly closer. Luckily, Gray survived, but ignoring evacuation orders can be deadly.

More recently, a 37-year-old firefighter, Jeremy Stoke, lost his life after being consumed by a fire whirl. He is now the 8th person killed by the Carr fire. In a report, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection ruled that Stoke died after becoming "entrapped" in the fire. The fire whirl lasted 110 minutes with temperatures that reached over 1400 °F.

“A lot of people have said they’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen anything like this. We can’t look at this as a one-time incident. We have to look at it as: what if it continues to happen?” -- Gabriel Lauderdale, Spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"Firenadoes" are historically rare enough that they aren’t officially recognized as natural disasters. They are not represented on FEMA’s National Planning Scenarios list. However, they are combinations of two universally recognized and feared natural disasters (wildfires and tornadoes) and deserve to be treated like other natural disasters. Because planning for each kind of disaster is different, emergency managers may need to develop preparedness and response plans for fire whirls. Do we treat it more like a forest fire or a tornado? What conditions make it more likely that a fire whirl will occur? Who is going to be the most at need during an event of this kind? As the frequency, intensity, and overlap of disasters increase, it is imperative that we start considering our plans for handling what may be our new normal.

Oliver SperansComment