Fire Whirl Forms in Sonoma County’s Kincade Fire

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As the Kincade Fire torched swaths of Sonoma County, California Thursday morning, a menacing flaming spiral stretched skyward while a nearby bystander looked on.

The moment was captured in a striking photograph by Kent Porter, a photojournalist with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

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.”

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