What a Firenado Is and How It Happens

Striking phenomenon can happen during wildfires like in California.

ByRheana Murray
May 15, 2014, 10:32 AM

May 15, 2014— -- Wildfires ravaging the West Coast have created the scary phenomenon of firenadoes — dangerous columns of flame that suck in debris and spew hot embers for miles around.

Firenadoes happen when ground-level winds come in contact with fire and whip it into the air, creating a shocking spiral of bright red and orange.

Wildfires Still Burning Across California

Photos: Fires Sear Through Southern California Towns

PHOTO: A wildfire-induced tornado of hot ash dances across a ridgetop as the sun sets May 13, 2002 near Rancho Santa Margarita, CA.
A wildfire-induced tornado of hot ash dances across a ridgetop as the sun sets May 13, 2002 near Rancho Santa Margarita, CA. The fire consumed about 1,100 acres in less than six hours and seriously threatened 200 homes. Because the region is experiencing what may be the dryest season on record, native vegatation has a very low moisture content causing the official fire season to begin about six weeks earlier than usual. An extremely dangerous fire season is widely predicted for southern California this year.
David McNew/Getty Images

They’re an amazing sight but dangerous for firefighters, as the tunnels suck in burning debris and can spit embers miles away, enlarging a wildfire’s path of destruction.

Most firenadoes usually last only a couple minutes.

The phenomenon can happen with smoke, too, when spiraling wind creates a smokenado.

PHOTO: Smoke takes on the appearance of a colossal tornado as it rises from upper Borrego Palm Canyon in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near the boundary of the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation August 7, 2002 west of Borrego Springs, California.
Smoke takes on the appearance of a colossal tornado as it rises from upper Borrego Palm Canyon in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near the boundary of the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation August 7, 2002 west of Borrego Springs, California. Borrego Palm Canyon is one of the park's primary attractions and is in the heart of rare and endangered peninsular desert bighorn sheep habitat. The 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in the contiguous United States.
David McNew/Getty Images

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