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Video: Raging 'firenado' swirls up from Alaska forest fire

Alaska Firenado

Jerzy Shedlock

The Tetlin Junction Ridge Fire continues to smolder near Tok, a town of 1,200 on a large, flat plain of the Tanana Valley in Alaska's Interior between the Tanana River and the Alaska Range. A state fire management agency reports the fire’s activity is currently minimal, but an Alaska firefighter’s video of the blaze has set fire to the Internet, eliciting terse, amazed responses from viewers for a “crazy!” firenado.

An Alaska Division of Forestry firefighter, Tim Whitesell, captured footage of the fire last week, according to the division’s Facebook page. Whitesell, a 20-year veteran, said it's a totally new phenomenon.

“A picture probably is worth a thousand words, but there are indeed times when a picture just doesn't do it justice,” Whitesell is quoted on the page. “I've never seen anything like it until now.”

The Tetlin fire grew more than 4,000 acres on Aug. 16, the day the video was captured. No responders were on the ground near the fire, but 10 fire engines were in place along the Alaska Highway, according to the Division of Forestry.

A rising, trashing column of fire is visible during one point of the footage. The spiraling red pillar is known as a fire tornado, also a firenado, fire whirl or fire devil.

The firenado is a highly unpredictable, rarely reported phenomenon, according to AccuWeather.com. Most are generated when a brush fire is whipped upward by strong air currents to form a vortex. This spinning tube of rising hot air sucks in burning debris, smoke and flammable gas, and at times ignites trees as tall as 45 feet. Firenadoes can ignite new wildfires by throwing burning embers miles away. Generally, they grow five to 10 stories high and stretch 10 feet wide. But most are short-lived, lasting only a few minutes.

The conditions that gave rise to this particular firenado also appear short-lived. Smoldering on the Tetlin fire’s southeastern edge has not alarmed fire managers, and crews are preparing to pull out resources from the area. Rain doused portions of the fire and more precipitation is expected over the fire midweek, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

Lightning sparked the eastern Interior Alaska wildfire on June 25, and as of Tuesday, 20,749 acres of wilderness continue to burn. The fire is 50 percent contained, and AICC reports that crews expect to have the fire fully under control by Sept. 15.

There are a handful of additional fires are burning in the Tok area: Moon Lake Fire, Billy Creek Fire, Ladue Fork Fire, Big Timber Creek Fire and Dennison Fork Fire.

So far this year, 592 fires have burned 1.32 million acres statewide.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com