California 'fire tornado' had 143 mph winds, possibly state's strongest twister ever
The devastating fire tornado that spun up during the Carr Fire last week had 143 mph winds, according to a preliminary report from the National Weather Service Thursday. This is equal to an EF-3 tornado on the five-level Enhanced Fujita Scale.
Dan Keeton, the meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said the fact that the weather service was able to see the rotation of the 35,000-foot-tall plume on its radar — well over 100 miles south of Redding — was significant.
"I’ve never seen anything like that in my career," said Keeton, who has been with the weather service since 1985.
Also known as a fire whirl or firenado, the weather service described it as "a rotating column of fire induced by intense rising heat and turbulent winds. Intense fire whirls can be violent and cause damage similar to tornadoes."
Fire tornadoes range in size from less than 1 foot as much as 500 feet in diameter, the Bureau of Land Management said.
"Depending on the final number, this might actually be the strongest ‘tornado’ in California history, even if it wasn’t formally a tornado," UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told theLos Angeles Times.
The weather service has radars in Davis, just west of Sacramento, and at Beale Air Force Base east of Marysville.
A “serious accident review” team from the weather service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is in Redding to collect information about the deadly It spun up between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. PT on July 26. Preliminary reports include the collapse of high tension power line towers, uprooted trees, and the complete removal of tree bark.
Craig Clements, the director of San Jose State University's Fire Weather Research Laboratory, told BuzzFeed that the vortex of fire may have been the strongest ever recorded. "This is historic in the U.S.," he said. "This might be the strongest fire-induced tornado-like circulation ever recorded."
So far the Carr Fire has claimed six lives, destroyed over 1,500 structures, and burned some 206 square miles, Cal Firesaid. That makes it the sixth-most destructive and 20th largest fire in state history.
The damage to the region is so severe – roads are blocked by downed power poles, bridges are damaged and fires continue to burn – that more than 20,000 evacuees still have not been allowed to return to their homes.