The Bad Astronomer Tweets About My Fire Tornado Footage

No, this isn’t some kind of obscure euphemism! It really happened!


First, the “Bad Astronomer” doesn’t describe an astronomer with dubious skills or loose morals, but one, Phil Plait, who has made a career out of debunking “bad astronomy” in movies, news reports, and urban legends. His blog, fittingly called Bad Astronomy, is the first place I check whenever astronomy-related news is released.

Second, a “Fire Tornado” is not really a tornado at all but a spinning vortex created by ┬árapid heating of the air caused by a fire. You might be familiar with dust devils, a similar phenomenon also caused by rapid heating of the air but without the fire.

Recently, the Bad Astronomer got interested in fire tornados and wrote about them on his blog. Seriously, you need to take a look at those two links!

In 2012, on Golden Prairie, I filmed a less dramatic vortex, but thought I’d send it along to the Bad Astronomer as another example. Here’s the mail exchange:

My email:

Greetings Dr. Plaitt!
Long-time reader, first time contacter.

I saw your posts about “fire tornados” and thought I’d send along my own version. As I understand it, these controlled burn “tornados” usually form over flat terrain where there is little or no wind. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is safer to conduct a controlled burn (or prescribed fire) with a steady, fairly strong wind (5-10 mph) as you can control the burn better that way. With no wind, the fire is free to create its own weather, including these charming vortices. Without a wind, the fire and smoke rise quickly drawing in air from all directions, causing local gusts, and the fire itself can become unpredictable and difficult to manage along pre-determined fire lines. Anyway, my video is not nearly as dramatic as the others you’ve shown, but it does show the very beginnings of a controlled burn vortex. You can see the smoke getting drawn in and when the vortex tightens up, you can hear the wind whipping past the microphone as it struggles to join the ascent. This was one of several small vortices created that day.

This prescribed fire was conducted in 2012 on Golden Prairie, a National Natural Landmark in southwest Missouri.
His reply:

Hi Brian-

Thanks for the note. That sounds legit- a steady wind in one direction may prevent the sort of twisting/torque I think is needed to get the vortex moving in the first place. I’ll have to look into this more, since it’s fascinating. That’s a great video, too! The collimation is very tight. I’ll put up a link to it on Twitter.
Thanks again,
Click the link, like the video, share with your friends! It’s too bad I spelled his name incorrectly . . .

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