Fire Tornadoes: Everything You Need to Know

Tue Aug 18 2020

As if the pandemic, hurricanes, and wildfires weren’t enough, 2020 seems to have yet another horror up its sleeve: the fire tornado.

Called a firenado for short, this rare event is a by-product of the wildfire and wildfire conditions. The heat of the fire is so intense that it creates an actual tornado.

If you’ve never heard of a fire tornado before, you’re not alone. August 15, 2020 marked the first time in history that the US National Weather Service issued a warning about a fire-induced tornado near Loyalton, California.

What Is a Fire Tornado?

Fire tornadoes are vortices of flame and ash formed through extreme heat, turbulent winds, and uneven terrain. Currents of hot air generated by the fire flow upward, and air rushes in from the sides (i.e., an inflow jet), causing a horizontal wind. Air converges from all directions into the location of the updraft, and sometimes wind shear (air flowing in different directions) enters the mix. That’s the source of the fire tornado’s initial rotation.

Once it gathers strength and speed, the fire tornado creates its own weather system, concentrating the vortex in the lower atmosphere. Its vortex pulls up embers, ash, flames, dirt, and debris. It can have winds exceeding 140 miles per hour and last 20 minutes.

Some fire tornadoes form a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, or a fire-generated thunderstorm, which doubles the effect of the fire by adding more heat into the atmosphere.

These are extremely dangerous, not just for the damage the vortex causes, but for the ash and embers flung to other areas that start more fires. The fire tornado’s path is generally unpredictable.

The Difference Between Fire Tornadoes and Fire Whirls

While both fire whirls and fire tornadoes start with strong updrafts from the fire and inflows from the fire itself, the difference is intensity and size. A fire tornado generates so much heat that it forms an actual tornado.

A fire whirl, also called a fire devil, is usually a relatively small whirlwind on the ground made of flame or ash. It’s made visible by smoke and caused by rising intense heat and turbulent winds, forming whirling eddies of air that can suck in debris and combustible gases.

Where Are Fire Tornadoes Happening?

At the time of publishing, the Loyalton Fire in California currently burns at only five percent containment with more than 20,000 acres already burned. On August 15, 2020, this fire produced a fire tornado, triggering a tornado warning for the area with funnel winds thought to exceed 60 miles per hour.

The danger is in the unpredictability of the vortex. Firefighters could work in what appears to be a safe fireline, but the winds can change in an instant and bring the formation right on top of them.

With the area just hitting the prime of fire season, officials and residents are concerned that the hot weather conditions could bring more fire tornadoes.

True fire tornadoes have only been documented twice before this. The first confirmed violent fire tornado was during the 2003 Canberra bushfires in Canberra, Australia. Rated F3, the tornado and fire claimed four lives and injured 492 people.

The second was the Carr Fire in Redding, California in 2018, where the fire tornado was rated as an EF3 tornado, and its winds exceeded 143 miles per hour.

Does Home Insurance Cover Fire Tornadoes?

Yes, fire tornadoes are usually covered by standard homeowners insurance. A typical HO3 policy can cover both tornado and wildfire damage to the home, other structures, and belongings. This kind of policy covers all events except those explicitly excluded by the policy, like:

  • Earth movement, such as an earthquake, sinkhole, and mudflow.
  • Water damage from flood, sewer backup, or water seeping in through the foundation.
  • Demolition of your home required by law to bring it to code.
  • Seizure or demolition by a government agency or authority.

Most home insurance policies at minimum cover these 16 perils:

  • Fire or lightning
  • Hail or windstorms
  • Explosions
  • Riots or civil commotion
  • Damage from aircrafts
  • Damage from vehicles
  • Smoke
  • Malicious mischief or vandalism
  • Theft
  • Volcanic eruptions
  • Falling objects
  • Weight of ice, snow, or sleet
  • Accidental discharge of water or steam
  • Sudden and accidental tearing apart, cracking, burning, or bulging of certain household systems
  • Freezing of household systems
  • Sudden and accidental damage from artificially generated electrical current

Even before fire tornados, California homeowners near the wildfire zones were feeling the heat. As wildfire season grows in length and intensity each year, insurers willing to offer affordable wildfire coverage are becoming more scarce. Given that nearly 776,000 homes are at extreme risk of wildfire damage and face about $220 billion in potential damages, that’s no small matter.

Many of these homes don’t qualify for traditional homeowners insurance and can only get a California FAIR Plan policy.

But stay tuned – we’re changing that.

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