Hot stuff

Feb 10, 2004
Scottsdale, AZ USA
These are just so weird looking. Ever see (or photograph) a fire nado? These pictures are from the Internet. There are not that many fire nado pictures out there. They are probably pretty difficult and dangerous to get; probably only accessible in most cases if you are actually firefighting on the job...

...or in the right place (well, wrong place) at the right time.
I think Mike Umschield(sorry if I mispelled the name) put up a picture of one last year. I can't remember if it was just smoke or if it was an actual flame filled vortex. I do remember it was pretty cool, whatever it was.
I've seen smokenadoes before (weak vorticies formed by the heat of a grassfire that rises five hundred or so feet into the air), but never firenadoes. I think they may be entirely different things, as tornadoes of fire seem to come from massive fires (I think firefighters call them 'firestorms'). Fire tornadoes are something that I could do without seeing before I die. :) Of all the ways to go, hot flaming death is way down on my list of preferences.
From the book "Forces of Nature"


One of America's most stunning catastrophes-a pair of gigantic firestorms that drove the flaming whirlwinds through a number of Wisconsin and Michigan towns in 1871- is also one of the least rememberd. Although the fires killed a thousund or more people, memory of the event was eclipsed by another, unrelated disaster that struck elswhere that night.

It was a dry autum in the upper midwest. There had been no rain since July 8, and for weeks small blazes had plagued the loggers and sawmill operaters in the pine forests along green bay near the border of wisconsin and michigan. On sunday october 8, an ominous yellow viel of smoke hid the sun over Peshtigo wisconsin. Residents of the lumber town did not know that arising wind had united the scatterd blazes into a single conflagration that was advancing on them like an army of fire.

That evening they heard it's ominous roar swelling in the south-west. Then, shortly after 9p.m., a massive storm of fire struck Peshtigo. "Houses crumbled like paper" wrote one reporter, "and flaming roofs were borne away like gigantic spars upon the fiery gale." The air itself became incinderary, and people died simply from inhaling it. The hair and clothing of others burst into flame. Hundreds crowded into the Peshtigo river, fighting for space to submerge themselves between breaths.

Storekeepers lowerd merchandise into wells in hope of saving it-unwittingly condemming the children who were lowerd into the same wells minutes later, then burned to death when the goods below them went up into flames.

Survivers described the onrushing blaze as a "tornado on fire." The account of Alfred Griffen, who lived near Peshtigo, was typical: "When I heard the roar of the aproaching tornado I ran out of my house and saw a great black, balloon-shaped object whirling through the air over the tops of the distant trees." Modern analysis demonstrated that Griffen did indeed see a whirlwind spawned not by weather but by fire. From expermints and the study of vast fires ignited in World War 2 bombing raids, scientists have learned that large intense blazes can create massive updrafts and hurricane force surface winds. These in turn spawned powerfull vortexes-tornado like whirlwinds.

Peshtigo was the largest town destroyed: 750 people or more died there. Another fire simultaneously swept up the door peninsula-now a placid resort area on the other side of green bay-and between them the fires devestated twenty-three towns and villages, badly damaged eighteen others, and leveled hundreds of isolated farm-steads. Estimates of death range as high as 1,500, and 1.3 million acres of timberland was burned.

But news of the Peshtigo horror, as it became to be called, was not to rivet the attention of the nation. On the very same night, several hundred miles to the south, a blaze was started that burned much of chicago. Although the Peshtigo horror took five times as many lives, It was ever after hidden in the Great Chicago Fire.
Wow that's quite a story. Much bigger than the pint-sized mini-whirl in photo #2. I believe that when smaller fires coalesce into one big inferno as in your story, the technical term is a "complex". Within that, the complex probably created its own wind and weather, and likely individual vortices developed as well. Strange as it may sound, I think that chasing thunderstorm-spawned tornadoes may be safer. :blink: Fire behavior is weird, especially when it barrels up a hill (which I see often in the Southwest as everything is a craggy mountain peak around here). The steeper the angle, the faster the fire moves, but the slower the firefighters can ascend the steep slope. Air battles are common. I have not as yet seen a fire nado, but I have seen some weird fire patterns, particularly in the late afternoons, as some fires on the mountain peaks take on a Vesuvius-like shape. It's all the act of lightning, starting blazes to bring nutrients back to earth, but is still very dramatic.
There was actually an article published in Electronic Journal of Severe Storm Meteorology (EJSSM) recently titled: Photographs and Analysis of an Unusually Large and Long-Lived Firewhirl. You can get it at Its a case study but still has some interesting info and pics in it.

That is quite a story isint it? I never even knew the peshtigo horror or the chicago fire had happend until I read "Forces of nature". I dont think many have heard of the Peshtigo horror. It has always fascinated me just because the firestorm was so bad. Sad to think people actually put thier children in wells ontop of flamable stuff only for the children to die and that some people died from thier clothing bursting into flames just from the air being so hot. What are the chances that another freak firestorm like this could happen in the united states? Has anyone else ever heard of the Peshtigo horror or the Great Chicago Fire?
One of the most memorable stories I've heard on this subject is about a killer fire tornado in San Luis Obispo, California in 1926. Lightning caused a large explosion and fire in an oil tank farm, and the fire burned for days. Meanwhile fire tornadoes began to be spawned from it as the prevailing wind increased, reportedly traveling up to a few miles from the fire. One of them picked up a house, carried it 150 ft and the house was smashed to the ground, killing 2 people inside. Several other houses in the area were also damaged or destroyed by the whirls as the fire burned.

Here's a link to a story about it from the April 1926 Monthly Weather Review, which has some old grainy pictures of some of the fire whirls -

There is a book called "Fire and Ice" by by Robert Wells and Don Davenport about the Peshtigo Fire and some winter great lakes stuff (the Ice part). From what I've heard, this is a great account of the fire including its lack of coverage in the media due to the Chicago fire. If you can find it (its out of print) I would recommend reading it.

While doing a prescirbed burn of approx 5 acres of 5' high grass along the Blue River in Beatrice,NE. We had several firenados. One that was most impressive was about 2' across, it was real tight and was about 50' tall. The coolest part of it was the noise it generated, a constant whizzing.
Large grass fire can really create an updraft from the ground up!!
Here is a pretty cool video of a fire vortex.

Also, if you're willing to download HUGE files, you can witness a large firestorm tornado that seperated itself from the parent fire, crossed a valley, and did F3 wind damage (and burnt the heck out of everything) very near to the people who were filming:

Wow, that is an actual tornadic supercellular pyrocumulus, talk about explosive convection, literally! Imagine chasing down that wedge! :blink:
thanks ben I will look for the book. I realy dont know much about the great chicago fire ethier so I will google that mabey for more info.