As the Kincade Fire torched swaths of Sonoma County, California Thursday morning, a menacing flaming spiral stretched skyward while a nearby bystander looked on.
You’re looking at a weather phenomenon known as a fire whirl, per CNN Weather. And yeah, they’re actually a thing, typically occurring when hot, dry air near the ground rises rapidly in a column, forming a vortex.
They should not to be confused with fire tornadoes, which are even bigger and more terrifying. Last year, a massive fire tornado claimed the lives of a firefighter and bulldozer driver battling the Carr Fire.
The difference between a fire whirl and a fire tornado (or firenado) mainly has to do with size, according to CNN meteorologist Judson Jones.
“A firenado is more like the size of a tornado,” Jones said, “while a fire whirl is a smaller spin up, like a dust devil.”