Speed Reads

Nature's Nightmares

California wildfires plagued by fire tornado, record-shattering heat wave, wild lightning strikes

California is grappling with triple-digit temperatures, a freak lightning storm in the Bay Area, and high winds, all of which are contributing to wildfires breaking out throughout the state and, on Saturday, at least one rare fire tornado in Lassen County, north of Lake Tahoe. The National Weather Service in Reno issued a first-ever fire tornado warning on Saturday, Dawn Johnson, a meteorologist at the Reno station, said Sunday.

A fire tornado is a "rare phenomenon" formed when strong winds, extreme heat, and rough terrain combine, fueled by gas from burning vegetation, Ben Gelber, a longtime meteorologist in Ohio, told The New York Times. "It's so unusual, it's a little difficult to wrap our heads around. Of course, the towering clouds created by fires, we've all seen that. But the tornadic feature or multiple fire whirls, that's just incredible." Johnson said the NWS plans to investigate the fire tornado sightings as soon as it's safe. "In this case, there's a massive wildfire burning in the same location, so the logistics are a lot more complicated."

The San Francisco Bay Area experienced nonstop lightning strikes Sunday, fueled by moisture from a tropical storm offshore. The lightning ignited spot fires in remote areas of Northern California and fueled wildfires being battled outside Los Angeles. The Lake Fire in Angeles National Forest, which has burned nearly 28 square miles, was 12 percent contained by Sunday, and the smaller fire near the L.A. suburb of Azusa was just 3 percent contained. The fire in Lassen County, with the fire tornado, was just 5 percent contained as of Sunday.

Much of California reached at least 100 degrees over the weekend, including Oakland for the first time in August, prompting rolling blackouts to prevent widespread power failures. Sacramento hit 112 degrees on Sunday, and the southwestern desert town of Needles recorded 123 degree heat on Saturday. Death Valley, the lowest and hottest place in the U.S., recorded a high of 130 degrees on Sunday, one of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth — possibly the highest, The Washington Post reports, given doubts about the accuracy of century-old measurements.