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Rare 'firenado' spotted in California as heat wave scorches state

"The big concern is that it's extremely erratic fire behavior," said a meteorologist withe the National Weather Service.
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A rare, fiery tornado was spotted in California on Saturday near the Nevada border where a large wildfire and excessive temperatures created a perfect, but dangerous, storm.

The fire tornado, or firenado, prompted a tornado warning from the National Weather Service in Reno shortly before 3 p.m. near the Loyalton fire, which started in Sierra County in the Tahoe National Forest.

"The big concern is that it's extremely erratic fire behavior," said John Mittelstadt, a Reno-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

"For any of the firefighters who are working on one flank of the fire, all of a sudden, there is no way to predict what the winds are going to do or how strong they are going to be," he added.

The fire near Loyalton that started Saturday had burned more than 2,000 acres by evening.

Firenados are created when rising hot air from a fire becomes twisted by winds changing direction, much like the more common land tornado. The difference between a regular tornado and the firenado, however, is that winds combine with smoke plums to create especially dangerous conditions.

Although uncommon, firenados do happen.

In 2018, the "grandaddy" of firenados struck during the deadly Carr Fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed eight people in Northern California.

"It was a huge, huge tornado," Mittelstadt said, adding that wind gusts reached 100 mph during the Carr firenado. "That was the grandaddy."

In Saturday's firenado, wind gusts reached about 60 mph, according to Mittelstadt.

Meteorologists will continue to monitor conditions across California and much of the western United States as a multi-day heat wave continues to scorch the region. On Friday, excessive temperatures caused rolling blackouts across California as the state's power grid was overwhelmed.

"These conditions can lead to more firenados for sure," Mittelstadt said. "Everyone need to be very alert and very careful not to create any sparks so that we can avoid any human-caused fires."