Wildfires raging in western Canada are creating ‘fire-breathing’ thunderstorms

Raging wildfires in British Columbia are combining with record heat to create ferocious vertical ‘fire clouds’ that generate their own weather.

More than 100 wildfires are burning across the region, which is facing a record-breaking heatwave.

After hitting 116 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday and 118 on Monday, the thermometer peaked in Lytton, British Columbia, on Tuesday at 121.3 degrees, the highest on record in Canada. (The previous high was a mere 113 degrees.)

By Thursday morning, a inferno was tearing through Lytton, forcing all 250 residents and hundreds more in surrounding areas to evacuate.  

Ninety percent of the village was destroyed, CBS News reported, and at least two people, an elderly couple, were killed.

As the heat and smoke rose above the town, it generated pyrocumulonimbus clouds that stirred up wind and smoke and hurled lightning instead of rain.

MONSTER pyrocumulonimbus in British Columbia this evening!Here’s a snippet. #BCfire @weathernetwork pic.twitter.com/lyUN2rPBZN

— Kyle Brittain (@KyleTWN) June 30, 2021

The North American Lightning Detection Network reported that between 3pm Wednesday and 6am on Thursday, the clouds generated more than 710,000 lightning strikes in British Columbia and northwest Alberta, according to SFGate. 

NASA calls pyrocumulonimbus ‘the fire-breathing dragon of clouds,’ because they funnel smoke like a chimney and trap massive amounts of pollutants in the upper atmosphere.  

If the air forms a swirling column, pyrocumulonimbus, also known as cumulonimbus flammagenitus clouds, can whip up flame ‘tornadoes’ that start new fires.

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The ravaging smoke and fire in Lytton, British Columbia, combined with record temperatures to form anvil-shaped pyrocumulonimbus clouds above the village on Thursday

Some 90 percent of the village has been destroyed, and at least two people reported dead, after a devastating wildfire tore through Lytton

Normal thunderstorms are caused by the cycle of moisture and heat rising into the sky, cooling and sinking, and then rising again, in a process known as convection.

But when the warm air comes from a smoky wildfire, according to Business Insider, hat convection can create a ‘fire cloud.’

Pyrocumulonimbus can generate rain but more often release powerful air blasts, or ‘downbursts,’ that scatter smoke and embers and feed the fire even more. 

Mike Flannigan, director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, told Yale Environment 360 that it’s nearly impossible for firefighters to put out pyrocumulonimbus fires as they are ‘extremely hot and chaotic,’ with embers shooting as far as three miles in every direction. 

The best they can hope for is that the weather changes and the clouds dissipate.

On Wednesday, Colorado meteorologist Dakota Smith tweeted a ‘mind-blowing’ video of satellite imagery above Lytton showing ‘incredible & massive storm-producing pyrocumulonimbus plumes.’  

Absolutely mind-blowing wildfire behavior in British Columbia.Incredible & massive storm-producing pyrocumulonimbus plumes. pic.twitter.com/kH39IuX1ez

— Dakota Smith (@weatherdak) July 1, 2021

‘I’ve watched a lot of wildfire-associated pyroconvective events during the satellite era, and I think this might be the singularly most extreme I’ve ever seen,’ UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain tweeted in response.

Kyle Brittain, the Weather Network’s Alberta Bureau Chief, posted images of pyrocumulonimbus cloud forming over Walhachin, British Columbia, about 70 miles from Lytton

‘This is a literal firestorm, producing thousands of lightning strikes and almost certainly countless new fires.’

Kyle Brittain, Alberta Bureau Chief for the Weather Network, posted images of pyrocumulonimbus clouds forming in both the Sparks Lake and McKay Creek wildfires in British Columbia.

Flames rise as a wildfire burns on a hill in Kamloops, British Columbia

Experts believe the number and intensity of pyrocumulonimbus are increasing as a result of climate change. Pictured: A wildfire burns on the side of a mountain in Lytton, B.C. on July 1 

Experts believe the number and intensity of pyrocumulonimbus are increasing as a result of climate change: in 2002, there were 17 reported in all of the US, Canada and Mexico combined, according to the Weather Network. 

Now, there are an average of 25 a year in western North America alone.    

In September 2020, central California was besieged by a ‘firenado’ as The ‘Creek Fire’ in Sierra National Forest created a 275-square-mile pyrocumulonimbus (abbreviated pyroCbs) visible from space. 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites captured the gigantic mushroom cloud towering an estimated 45,000 feet high above the region. 

A pyrocumulonimbus cloud towers over thick smoke from fires burning near Canberra, Australia, in 2003.

‘Figuratively, we have a map pinpointing the location of pyroCbs events,’ Mike Fromm, a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory told Yale Environment 360. 

‘It’s been filling up fast. Maybe we’re better at detecting them, but I think they’re increasing.’