Western Wildfires Fire Clouds Explainer

In this photo taken with a drone provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, is seen in July over the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon. Smoke and heat from the massive wildfire in southeastern Oregon created ‘fire clouds’ over the blaze — dangerous columns of smoke and ash that can reach up to 30,000 feet and are visible more than 100 miles away.

Across Northern New Mexico, it’s been a hazy summer and early fall for all to see — and smell. Much of that smoke was blown here by winds from the Bootleg Fire, which raged across south-central Oregon, and the Dixie Fire, which scorched Northern California. As these blazes obliterated hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, the roiling flames launched massive smoke plumes high into the atmosphere.

Typically, the smoke has been lofted to a few miles above ground, and then picked up and carried by wind currents across the country, much like weather fronts that carry moisture and bring rain to blanket New York City and the eastern seaboard in a thick haze.

But the Bootleg Fire also sent up a towering vertical plume lofting smoke to a record-breaking 10 miles. Intensely hot fires from dense fuels, local weather conditions and dry surface and high-altitude atmospheric clouds conspired to cause the plume to rise far above ordinary clouds.

Manvendra Dubey is a Los Alamos National Laboratory fellow and senior scientist who measures smoke and trace gases from fires to understand their effects on health and climate. Jon Reisner is a scientist at Los Alamos, where he models wildfire smoke and other atmospheric phenomenon. A version of this article was first published by ScientificAmerican.com.

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