Fire Tornado, Fire Devil, Whatever—Just Look at This Swirling Column of Fire | Smart News | Smithsonian

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Fire Tornado, Fire Devil, Whatever—Just Look at This Swirling Column of Fire

According to Mark Wysocki, New York's state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, the columns of dust are more similar to a dust devil

smithsonian.com


A fire tornado? If you had asked Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton back in ’96 if that could happen, they’d probably have said: “When cows fly.” But filmmaker Chris Tangey, the man who captured a 100-foot-high twister of fire on tape leaving a path of destruction across the Australian outback on Tuesday, will tell you otherwise.

The rare footage of the whirlwind has spread like—ahem—wildfire on YouTube and other media outlets this week. In case you missed it, the report from a local news station:

According to the video, the last rainfall in Alice Springs, Australia, where the video was taken, was April 24. Combine that with the build up of dry, old growth and you’ve got the perfect conditions for a tornado of this kind. “It was a dance of giants in front of me,” Tangey says in the video, “I had never seen anything like it.”

Tangey was scouting movie locations in the Northern territory when he spotted the swirl of fire, the Australian Times reports:

“It sounded like a jet fighter going by, yet there wasn’t a breath of wind where we were,” Mr Tangey told the Northern Territory News.

“You would have paid $1000 a head if you knew it was about to happen.”

The column of fire raged for about 40 minutes, Tangey said.

To call the event a “fire tornado” may be a misnomer, however. According to Mark Wysocki, New York’s state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, the columns of dust are more similar to a dust devil.  The Huffington Post reports:

“‘I would just call them fire vortices but that doesn’t sound so sexy to the public, so I would call them fire devils,’” he told Life’s Little Mysteries.

Like the dust devils that spring up on clear, sunny days in the deserts of the Southwest, a fire devil is birthed when a disproportionately hot patch of ground sends up a plume of heated air. But while dust devils find their heat source in the sun, fire devils arise from hot spots in preexisting wildfires.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Tornado That Saved Washington
Why People Won’t Leave the Town That Has Been on Fire for Fifty Years

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About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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