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'Firenado' Takes Off During Recent Wildfire

A tornado swirling inside of a wildfire.
Courtesy of Tasha Farrell
This screenshot, taken from a video, shows the Fire Tornado forming during the Loyalton Fire in northern California on Saturday, Aug. 15.

No, it's not a sci-fi movie. A fire tornado touched down near the Nevada-California border Saturday, during the Loyalton Fire about 25 miles west of Reno, Nev.

“This would only be the third event that’s risen to this magnitude that has scientific documentation to go along with it," said Neil Lareau, atmospheric scientist and physics professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Lareau said the only other times that conditions were recorded as this extreme took place in Australia in 2003 and Redding, Calif. in 2018. But with climate change creating longer and drier fire seasons, he said this could become more common moving forward.

“As we increase fire season, as we dry out fuels even more, it essentially increases our opportunities to see extreme fire behavior, which can manifest in a number of ways," he said, “and these fire-generated tornadoes are one example of those extremes."

Photos and videos of the fire tornado quickly went viral over the weekend on social media.

Tasha Farrell captured video of the tornado in action. She said she's been chasing fires since she was a kid, and that this was one of the craziest ones she's ever seen.

“My first thought was not to grab my phone. It was actually to get my kids in their seats in the car," she said. “So I did that and then I grabbed my phone because I thought no one's ever going to believe me if I tell them, ‘Hey I saw a tornado.' "

The smoke from the blaze closed schools in Reno Monday. Over the weekend, the lightning-caused fire burned tens of thousands of acres and destroyed at least five homes.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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