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Incredible 'fire tornadoes' whirl through our nightmares

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Saturday, May 10, 2014, 7:05 AM - Tornadoes are already terrifying and destructive, but to truly reach 'horrifying' and 'nightmarish' levels, it seems adding fire is the way to go.

Janea Copelin captured an incredible photo of a fire tornado - or 'fire whirl' - just outside Chillicothe, Missouri on Sunday, May 4, which has been making the rounds on the internet. Check it out on Mashable.com

This isn't the only time these have been captured on film, though. The photo above was taken during a controlled-burn in Colorado, as government workers and firefighters watched and recorded it on video. See the video below:

Although the source of energy for a fire whirl is very different than for a tornado - the tornado gets it from storm cloud above, while the fire whirl's energy comes from the fire below - they form in roughly the same way. The atmosphere naturally sets up rolling 'tubes' of air above the ground, as friction slows down the winds closest to the ground, which then introduces a drag on the winds above, pulling them down slightly, and this cascades upward. When these kinds of tubes encounter a powerful updraft, like the ones flowing into the bottom of a thunderstorm or the ones created by the heated air from a roaring fire, the tube turns from horizontal to vertical and the updraft causes it to rotate faster and tighten up into these powerful spinning vortexes. 

Although this fire whirl was a fairly small one, overall, these can get very large, up to the strength of an EF2 or even EF3 tornado, as seen in the video below:

This footage was captured by Tim Whitesell, the Air Tactical Supervisor with the Alaska Division of Forestry, has he and pilot Doug Burtson flew past the southeast edge of the Tetlin Junction Ridge Fire, on August 16, 2013. 

Describing the fire whirl, which was estimated at around 1,200 meters wide, Tim Whitesell wrote: "a picture probably is worth a thousand words, but there are indeed times when a picture just doesn't do it [the trees being uprooted and blown around] justice. I've never seen anything like it until now."

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