A large wildfire burning across three eastern Sierra Nevada mountain counties exploded into a highly dangerous fire tornado Saturday, around the time federal forecasters issued a dire and unusual warning.
The Loyalton Fire started Friday at about 4:30 p.m. near Mount Ina Coolbirth in Sierra County, and on Saturday morning it had burned 2,000 acres in the area. By late afternoon, the wildfire had grown to an estimated 20,000 acres and was raging in parts of Sierra, Lassen and Plumas counties.
As the fire grew amid extreme heat and intense winds, it sent up a tall column of smoke that appears to have formed into a fire-fueled tornado — similar to the one seen during the 2018 Carr Fire in Redding. The National Weather Service in Reno observed the menacing smoke column and detected rotation on radar, prompting it to issue an hour-long tornado warning shortly after 2:30 p.m.
It may be the first time the weather service has issued a tornado warning for a wildfire.
Now PlayingCarr Fire tornado captured in newly released videosSan Francisco Chronicle
Fire tornado: Helicopter video of Carr FireSan Francisco Chronicle
Carr Fire: Video shows fire tornado at Sacramento RiverSan Francisco Chronicle
Fire Engine video of tornado in Carr FireSan Francisco Chronicle
“We really don’t have any other product for that type of situation,” said Wendell Hohmann, a meteorologist for the weather service. “We decided to put a tornado warning out on it and emphasize the significance.”
Hohmann said the formation of the fire tornado was aided by high temperatures and atmospheric instability.
“That instability that then promotes fire growth promotes that column to build up like it did today,” he said. “And then, secondly, we had the right wind conditions, so the storm was able to rotate.”
The fire was 5% contained and had not destroyed any structures or injured people as of 5 p.m., said Joe Flannery, a spokesman for the Tahoe National Forest, where part of the fire was burning. But various evacuation orders were in place across the three counties as the blaze tore through a basin dotted with grass, sagebrush and juniper.
“It is burning in an area that hasn’t seen fire for quite some time,” Flannery said.
Hundreds of firefighters were battling the fire, but their jobs were made even harder by the fact that the area had not burned in a long time as well as steep, rocky terrain and some barbed wire on range land, he said.