More than 3.1 million acres have burned in California this year, part of a record fire season that still has four months to go. A suffocating cloud of smoke has veiled the West Coast for days, extending more than a thousand miles above the Pacific. And the extreme fire behavior that’s been witnessed this year hasn’t just been wild — it’s virtually unprecedented in scope and scale.
Fire tornadoes have spun up by the handful in at least three big wildfires in the past three weeks, based on radar data. Giant clouds of ash and smoke have generated lightning. Multiple fires have gone from a few acres to more than 100,000 acres in size in a day, while advancing as many as 25 miles in a single night. And wildfire plumes have soared up to 10 miles high, above the cruising altitude of commercial jets.
Scientists have been scrambling to collect as much data on these wildfires as possible, hoping to unlock the secrets to their extreme behavior and fury. Among them is Neil Lareau, a professor of atmospheric sciences in the department of physics at the University of Nevada at Reno. Lareau closely studies pyrocumulus clouds, towering explosion-like plumes of heat that develop above intense blazes.