A rare fire tornado – or “firenado” – warning has been issued in California due to wildfires burning near the Nevada border.
The Loyalton fire, named due to its proximity to the city, has prompted evacuations and jumped a highway on Saturday, forcing firefighters to protect drivers who tried to avoid the flames.
The National Weather Service (NWS) based in the Nevada city of Reno tweeted that the “extreme fire behaviour” was expected to continue and a fire tornado could follow.
The NWS defines a “firenado” as an “extreme weather phenomenon that can occur with rotating fire columns”.
It erupts when rising heat from a fire is caught by gusts of wind that change direction, similar to a traditional tornado.
It makes for particularly dangerous conditions as winds combine with smoke plumes.
This is believed to be the first “firenado” warning the NWS has issued.
The Loyalton fire started in Sierra County in the Tahoe National Forest early on Saturday.
By 5pm, it was estimated to have grown to 20,000 acres and was only 5% contained as it spread toward Reno.
Several surrounding areas were ordered to evacuate.
Video captured by firefighters showed the flame burning towards the Interstate-395 highway.
⚠️CLOSE CALL. #TMFR Brush Engine 44 on scene earlier today as #LoyaltonFire jumped HWY 395 with vehicles stuck on the road. The crew provided protection and got the vehicles out of harms way. No injuries. pic.twitter.com/iDTWzXo7Y8
— Truckee Meadows Fire & Rescue (@TMFPD) August 16, 2020
The Truckee Meadows Fire and Rescue department tweeted about a “close call” with cars that were left “stuck on the road” as the fire jumped the highway.
“The crew provided protection and got the vehicles out of harms way,” the tweet said.
John Mittelstadt, a meteorologist at the NWS, told NBC News the “erratic” nature of the wildfires made their trajectory difficult to predict.
The warning came as firefighters also battled at least five wildfires in Colorado – one of which was reportedly the largest in the state’s history.
As of Saturday night, firefighters were dealing with extremely challenging conditions, including hot temperatures, some difficult terrain and highly flammable fuel.
The wildfires in California and Colorado have been put down to a multi-day heatwave across much of the western US, and Mr Mittelstadt said conditions such as these could lead to more “firenados” in future.
He said: “These conditions can lead to more firenados for sure. Everyone need to be very alert and very careful not to create any sparks so that we can avoid any human-caused fires.”