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natural disasters

California's powerful McKinney fire is causing the 'fire-breathing dragon of clouds'

The intense McKinney fire in Northern California is producing its own weather, generating four thunder and lightning storms just in its first 24 hours.

The fire broke out in the Klamath National Forest on Friday, and since then it has burned more than 55,000 acres. It is fueled by parched vegetation, high temperatures, and dry conditions, and the fire is burning so hot that its smoke has penetrated the stratosphere multiple times, and formed a pyrocumulonimbus cloud — dubbed by NASA as the "fire-breathing dragon of clouds."

The rain, wind, thunder, and lightning make this a "classic example of a wildfire producing its own weather," U.S. Naval Research Laboratory meteorologist David Peterson told the Los Angeles Times.

Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at Canada's Thompson Rivers University, explained to the Times that data has been showing for years that fires are becoming more powerful, but "what we're seeing in the Western United States and in British Columbia in the last few years, I would not have expected to see until 2040. The signal is clear: This is due to human-caused climate change. It can't be any clearer than that. It's happening more rapidly than I would have expected. This is my field, and this is surprising how rapidly things are changing."

It used to be rare for a fire to trigger a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, but data shows the smoke plumes are getting taller and are also more densely packed with tiny particles of soot and ash. This pollution is linked to cardiovascular problems, asthma, and premature death. "The more we know about smoke, the more we know it's bad for us," Flannigan told the Times. Read more about pyrocumulonimbus clouds, and what scientists are still trying to figure out about them, at the Los Angeles Times.