California officials issued a warning Saturday for a “fire tornado” — or “firenado” — in a new blaze in the eastern Sierras. The wildfire is burning so hot that it has the power to create its own weather phenomenon with deadly blasts of blazing heat, flames and wind.
The wildfire raging near the small community of Loyalton near Reno, Nevada, grew to 20,000 acres by Saturday and quickly triggered the warning from the National Weather Service.
It was believed to be the first time that a fire tornado warning has been issued ahead of the phenomenon. Fire tornadoes have been spotted, however. A massive firenado was filmed in Redding, California, in 2018.
Some 300 firefighters were battling the Loyalton blaze, which was first reported Friday afternoon. It was only 5% contained Saturday afternoon as it burned over a ridge and jumped Highway 395 near the Nevada border.
Officials spotted an ominous “pyrocumulus cloud” indicating a developing firenado in the early afternoon south of Chilcoot.
“The Loyalton Fire to the east of the Sierra Valley exploded most impressively this afternoon, with a very large pyrocumulus [cloud] and reports of fire tornadoes. Due to the possibility of very strong fire-generated winds and extreme fire behavior with danger to fire personnel, a tornado warning was issued to heighten awareness in the area of the fire,” said the NWS alert.
The rotating columns and fire whirls of the burgeoning cloud are “capable of producing a fire-induced tornado and outflow winds in excess of 60 mph,” the NWS warned. “This is extremely dangerous for firefighters.”
By late Saturday afternoon the NWS tweeted that the pyrocumulus had weakened and the “immediate threat of tornadic activity” had decreased — though the message warned of continuing “extreme fire behavior.”
There were no immediate reports of injuries by late Saturday. But sections of three counties were under mandatory evacuation orders.