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As Australia’s massive bushfires have raged, some fires have grown so large and so fierce that they’ve started to create their own weather: fire clouds, full of lightning that starts new fires and heavy winds that spread them. Now, scientists say this hellish phenomenon could become far more common as a result of climate change.
The fire clouds — technically called pyrocumulonimbus or pyroCb — are, well, scary as hell: They produce lots of lightning, thunder, and tornado-like winds that can spread embers.
Scientists told NBC News that the specific conditions that lead to fire clouds — large wildfires, heat, dry conditions, and wind — are likely to become far more common as a result of climate change.
"I don't like to use the term 'new normal,' because it indicates a plateau or a shift to another state," Mike Flannigan, director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta, told NBC. "It's kind of a new reality. We're going to see more and more fires and more and more dangerous conditions. Not every year is going to be a bad fire year, but on average we're going to see a lot more bad fires."
The fire clouds are often created when a particularly strong blaze creates an updraft that pulls smoke, ash, and water vapor into a column, which then cools and condenses into a cloud. In late December, Australia’s fires grew even worse, partly because of lightning, embers, and strong winds from localized pyrocumulonimbus clouds that sparked even more blazes.
“These storms are high-intensity, erratic, dangerous, and hard to predict," Flannigan told NBC News.
These sorts of unpredictable weather systems are particularly dangerous for firefighters, who can be caught unprepared. One firefighter in Australia was crushed and killed when a sudden fire tornado lifted his truck off the ground.
The wildfires in Australia have proven utterly devastating. At least 27 people have died and more than 1 billions animals have been killed. Some 15.6 million acres of land have been scorched and more than 2,000 homes destroyed.
There is some hope for a brief respite in the coming days: heavy rains are forecast for some of the fire-ravaged areas in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria.
But with that relief for firefighters also comes a new threat: a contaminated water supply. Authorities are worried the rain could wash dangerous ash into the water supply, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
“We can’t expect that we can contain all of [the ash],” Stuart Khan, a professor at the University of New South Wales who specializes in water quality and treatment, told the WSJ.
And while the rains may slow the fires somewhat, it’s not guaranteed they won’t pick back up at a later time. January and February are the hottest months, and historically the worst months for wildfires in Australia.
“It’s still too early to say the worst is over,” Ben Shepherd, an inspector at the NSW Rural Fire Service, told the Journal.
Cover: A firefighter backs away from the flames after lighting a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in an effort to contain a larger fire nearby. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)