Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Nancy from Charlottesville, VA. Nancy Wonders, “What is a firenado?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Nancy!

You’ve likely heard of tornadoes. You might even know that some tornadoes are made of fish. But did you know other tornadoes are made of fire? That’s right. Today we’re learning about firenadoes!

Firenadoes are sometimes called “fire whirls.” They also go by “fire devils” and “fire twisters.” They’re huge towers of fire that rise, twisting, high into the air. Sounds a lot like a tornado, right? Many think so—that’s where the name came from, after all. 

But experts say firenadoes are more similar to dust devils, which are swirling clouds of hot air, sand, and dirt. Firenadoes and dust devils don’t form the same way tornadoes do. While tornadoes need conditions in the atmosphere to be just right, firenadoes form from conditions much closer to the ground.

So what’s the recipe for a firenado? It’s pretty simple. Just mix very hot, dry air with fire. You may have heard before that heat rises. It’s true—and when lots of hot air rises in a small area, it does so in columns. And, as more and more hot, dry air rises in a column, the column starts to spin.

Have you ever sat in the center of a merry-go-round? If so, you know the center rotates much faster than the edges. The same thing happens inside a column of hot air. Particles in the center of the column move much faster than those on the outer edge.

So, as the air continues to rise and spin, it moves toward the center of the column. This allows the air to spin faster and faster. As it does so, it starts to draw in other objects around it. It might pick up dirt, or sticks, or—you guessed it!—fire. As the spinning air pulls fire into its rotation, the fire twists and turns with the column, forming one of the most terrifying phenomena known to humankind.

How common are firenadoes? They probably happen more often than you think. Often, they form during wildfires. They’re usually a few hundred feet tall and last just a few short minutes. However, much larger firenadoes have also been recorded.

In 2018, a firenado reaching 18,000 feet into the air was recorded in California. This was during the severe Carr Fire, a wildfire that lasted over a month. But this firenado was unique for more than just its size. It was formed with the help of a cloud, combined with the upward movement of air. It’s one of only two firenadoes on record to do so, making it very similar to an actual tornado. 

Other firenadoes have wreaked record-breaking havoc over the years. One of the earliest on record was in 1871. A number of firenadoes were part of an enormous, fast-moving wildfire. They burned through Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The blaze and its fire whirls caused terrible destruction.

Firenadoes don’t usually last long, but they’re still one of the most destructive forces around. If you see a firenado, head in the other direction. They may be quite a sight, but firenadoes move quickly and are very dangerous.

Standards: CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.R.10

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