More than 20 people are dead and thousands of homes and other properties destroyed after wildfires descended on California this week, burning both sides of the state and laying waste to everything in their path. The Woolsey fire has reportedly burned more than 70,000 acres and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate. The Camp Fire has since been declared the most destructive in California’s history.
Several fire whirls were observed at the sprawling sites of the three wildfires, the Camp Fire in the north and the Hill and Woolsey Fires in the southern part of the state. KTLA, a CW affiliate, reported observing a fire devil near the 101 Freeway on Friday.
Laura Anthony of ABC-affiliate KGO-TV also shared footage of a fire whirl near Paradise, a community of 27,000 people that was almost entirely wiped out by the Camp Fire.
Another video shared on Instagram captured a fire whirl reportedly situated near Malibu.
Fire whirls develop in a similar manner to dust devils and are essentially spinning columns of hot air. They are sometimes referred to as fire tornadoes—and some of these incidents have been reported as such—but according to weather scientists, there’s a difference.
California experienced what the National Weather Service announced was the equivalent of an EF-3 tornado during the Carr Fire in July, an incident that Clements pointed to as an example of a true fire tornado. Arizona State University fire historian Stephen Pyne told Earther at the time that documentation of such phenomena is rare, meaning we know relatively little about how and why they form.
Fire whirls, by contrast, are more common. Craig Clements, director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San José State University, described them to Earther in August as “basically wind shear that gets tilted up.”
“[These fire whirls] are small, not like the Carr Fire tornado in July,” Clements told Earther this week. “These are common on most wildfires, but fire whirls are spectacular in any case.”
The three major fires continued to burn as of Saturday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The Camp Fire had reportedly burned 100,000 acres as of Saturday morning and was 20 percent contained. The Hill Fire was 25 percent contained after burning thousands of acres. The Woolsey Fire, however, was still not contained as of Saturday.
Updated 11/11/18, 10:30 a.m. ET: Added comment from Craig Clements and updated the numbers of deaths.