How An Idaho Wildfire Helped Scientists Better Understand 'Firestorms'

Apr 10, 2017

Firestorms are a particularly terrifying – and largely unknown – phenomenon. The naturally occurring events happen during megafires, when a wildfire burns so hot and so fiercely that surrounding air is drawn in, creating powerful winds that remove moisture from nearby fuel – increasing the already extreme fire risk.

Oftentimes pyrocumulus clouds form during the storms as the moisture from plants is drawn out. The Pioneer Fire near Idaho City last summer had a pyrocumulus formation visible from Boise.

And according to a feature article by High Country News, the Pioneer Fire provided researchers an opportunity to gather new and valuable information about firestorms. University of Colorado Boulder scientist David Kingsmill recounted his harrowing journey in a twin-propeller plane packed with equipment to measure the plumes.

“Orange haze closed around them, then darkened to black, blotting out the world. Kingsmill felt his seat press hard against his back as the plane lifted suddenly, like a leaf in the wind. Then the black turned back to orange. The plane jolted and fell. Pens, cameras and notebooks leaped into the air and clattered against windows. A technician slammed headlong into the ceiling . . . According to the plane’s instruments, it had been seized by an 80 mph updraft of hot, buoyant air, followed by a turbulent downdraft….Even stronger forces were at work several thousand feet below: The plane’s radar waves, reflecting off rising smoke particles, had registered updrafts exceeding 100 mph.” – High Country News

According to Kingsmill's research partner Craig Clements of San Jose State University, the flights through the Pioneer Fire plume gave researchers the clearest picture yet of how up- and downdrafts work in a firestorm.

"Clements’s trained eye began to pick out some basic structures: a 40 mph downdraft next to a 60 mph updraft signified a turbulent eddy on the edge of the plume. Hot air pushing up past cooler, stationary air had set in motion a tumbling, horizontal vortex — the sort of thing that could easily have accounted for the plane’s brief freefall. Those blotchy radar pictures may finally allow us to see through wildfire’s impulsive, chaotic veneer – and perceive the more predictable, underlying forces that guide its behavior." -- High Country News

Click here to read the full article from High Country News.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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