Wildfires are dangerous, but firestorms are downright terrifying.
They happen when conditions are right for the soaring air column over fire to develop its own momentum (PDF). This makes ground winds turbulentand they pour into the center of the conflagration, increasing its heat and spreading it around.
The process becomes self-sustaining. In fact, it will continue to grow as long as there is fuel available.
Firestorms occur naturally. As well – and this is heartbreaking – human beings sometimes start them, accidentally or on purpose.
Be aware that we’re going to look at representative World War II firestorms here – Stalingrad, Hamburg, and Hiroshima – as well as the deadly but, somehow, more humane natural or accidental ones. (I have set the Hamburg video, filmed by a local fireman, to stop before it gets to the bodies.)
Here, then, in chronological order, are ten of the worst natural and man-made firestorms over the last one hundred years.
10. The Kanto quake, Japan (1923)
On September 1, 1923, at two minutes before noon, most people in Japan’s Kanto region, which contains Tokyo and Yokohama, were busy cooking lunch over their open coal or charcoal stoves.
Then a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit. Extended shaking brought down almost every building in Yokohama. In Tokyo, it demolished many neighborhoods in seconds. It also destroyed the water mains that were so necessary for fire fighting.
Fires ignited by upturned cooking stoves broke out immediately. Almost ninety (PDF) occurred in Yokohama alone. In Tokyo, police had 83 fire reports by 12:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, there were 136.
To make matters worse, flames were fanned by the winds of an approaching typhoon. With so much dry fuel around in the form of debris after the quake, firestorms soon formed.
People were incinerated or suffocated from lack of oxygen while trapped by debris. They drowned in rivers, trying to escape walls of flames.
The most grisly incident happened in downtown Tokyo, where a fire whirl engulfed the building where over 40,000 people had sheltered after the earthquake, bringing with them bedding, clothes, and other flammable materials. Some 38,000 of them burned to death.
Fires raged for two days. Well over half the houses in the Kanto region burned down before the flames came under control. Overall, nearly 142,000 people died.
Today, the site in Tokyo where those 38,000 people perished horribly is now Yokoamicho Park, and there is a memorial there. Too, September 1 has been designated Japan’s Disaster Prevention Day, when everybody is reminded to always be prepared.
9. Black Friday, Australia (1939)
The 1938-1939 summer in Victoria, Australia, was extremely hot. Forests and grasslands were dry. By mid-January, a few small bush fires, sparked by careless campers and property owners, were already burning.
On Friday, January 13, 1939, the temperature reached 45.6 degrees (a record that would hold for 70 years – see number 2, below). Then suddenly the wind picked up.
The three requirements for extreme fire behavior – sloping land, lots of fuel, and windy, hot weather – were now in place.
Those scattered small blazes exploded into massive, quick-moving fire fronts that some witnesses compared to hurricanes. Firestorm winds pulled big trees out of the ground. They blew hot gas and burning debris as much as 11 km ahead of the main front. Intense heat melted steel girders and machinery in their path. Brick houses burst into flames ahead of the main fires.
The eastern part of the state of Victoria was hardest hit. The towns of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End were eaten up, occasionally in just minutes, as the rapidly moving fire moved along.
Seventy-one people died, and 1.5 million hectares of land were destroyed before the fires could be controlled on the 15th, the day it finally rained.
8. World War II: Stalingrad (1942), Hamburg (1943)
People have been using fire as a weapon for a long time. Twentieth-century technology made it easier than ever.
In World War II, both the Allies and the Germans unleashed horrendous firestorms on cities such as Stalingrad and Hamburg.
On August 23, 1942, German forces were close to the city of Stalingrad, and their commander asked for air support. He certainly got it. The entire 4th Luftwaffe Corps plus as many long-range bombers as they could get dropped a combination of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the city.
The explosives smashed everything into tinder. The incendiaries set it alight. Flames from burning houses, apartment buildings, and factories soon merged into great firestorms. Even the Volga River burned – bombs had shattered storage tanks, sending vast amounts of oil into the waterway.
A German soldier reported that, during the night, he could read a newspaper by the light of burning Stalingrad, 48 km away.
Later in the war it was Hamburg, Germany’s, turn.
July 1943 was unusually warm around Hamburg, and there had been little to no rain for quite a while. Then the Allies launched a series of aerial raids called Operation Gomorrah.
They hit Hamburg with over 780 bombers in the night of the 27th. The massive, concentrated bombing, combined with limited firefighting capabilities on the ground because of earlier raids, set off a firestorm.
A survivor described what it was like:
A hot hurricane storm swept through Hamburg and destroyed streets and hurled everything which wasn’t riveted or nailed down through the air…At times the air speed over the houses amounted to 45m/sec, and at 7 km higher it was 60m/sec. On these streets through which the firestorm raged, the tops of the trees bent almost to the ground…At the Berliner Tor in the Wallstrasse, trees with a diameter of 30cm were simply uprooted, and in other streets uprooted trees had a diameter of almost 50cm. It raged like a kind of wind vortex through many streets, and the people who ran in there were, in the blink of an eye, incinerated as if they were in a fiery furnace. There remained either a little heap of ashes or one found a black mummified figure, very little more remained. In the centre of the firestorm a temperature of 800° C. was measured.
Dresden (February 1945) and Tokyo (March 1945) underwent similar attacks. Then World War II ended with two nuclear blasts, one of which caused a firestorm.
7. The nuclear age: Hiroshima, Japan (1945)
Back in the fifth or sixth century BC, Sun-Tzu pointed out five ways to attack with fire. Modern science has worked out a sixth way – splitting the atom. However, only one of the two nuclear weapons dropped on Japan set off a firestorm.
The Little Boy atomic bomb went off a little over 600 meters over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
At that height, 35 to 45 percent of a nuke’s yield is converted into thermal radiation that travels outward at the speed of light.
The first pulse of heat will ignite anything nearby that’s combustible. The second pulse, coming after the slower-moving blast wave, is the hottest and now has all that debris to work on. Nonetheless, no firestorm developed at Nagasaki.
At Hiroshima, weather and local terrain (PDF) made the difference. The land is flatter there, so buildings are much closer together. That morning, there was also just enough breeze to fan the multiple fires into a huge Hamburg-style firestorm.
It burned over 10 square kilometers and incinerated or damaged over 90 percent of the city’s buildings. The Hiroshima firestorm also killed an estimated 50 to 65 percent of the almost 70,000 people who died on August 6, 1945.
“War is cruelty and you cannot refine it,” General William Tecumseh Sherman once said.
Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. Those World War II horrors may have shocked a little peace-loving refinement into us…for a while, anyway
Nature, however, continues to rampage.
6. Ash Wednesday, Australia (1983)
In February 1983, probably not too many people in southeastern Australia were thinking about World War II. They were too busy worrying about the dust storm that had recently happened at Melbourne and the ongoing bush fires – the result of years of drought and the current hot and dry weather.
On February 16th, gale-force winds swept over the region, raising temperatures to over 40 degrees Celsius and dropping relative humidity down below 15 percent. Soon, over 180 small bushfires had broken out.
Then the direction of the powerful winds shifted – with explosive results.
Flame fronts shifted and individual fires merged into firestorms that moved too quickly for those in their paths to get out of the way. At Upper Beaconsfield, Victoria, fire winds of more than 100 kph tore a corrugated iron roof off a building and tossed it 50 meters. The speeding fire front trapped and killed 12 firefighters there.
In Victoria alone, the Ash Wednesday fires burned an area twice the size of metropolitan Melbourne. The worst loss of life was at Upper Beaconsfield, but overall seventy-five people died before the fires were brought under control, and hundreds were injured.
Ash Wednesday would be the worst bushfire in Australian history…until 2009.
5. Oakland, California (1991)
The grassy slopes on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay have a long history of wildfires. The fire risk here has only increased as people have moved in, bringing with them more fuel (in the form of landscaping materials and houses) and ignition sources.
In October 1991, the fire risk was quite high because of a multi-year drought. In addition, a deep freeze the previous winter had killed a lot of bushes and trees, increasing available wildfire fuel to as much as 30 to 50 tons per acre (PDF).
On October 20, fire crews were mopping up at the scene of a grass fire the previous day on a wooded hillside in a box canyon. It was near the Caldecott Tunnel and a lot of upscale residential properties. Later on, no one ever figured out what had caused it.
There were still hotspots around when fast-moving Diablo winds came racing over the hill crests and down the hillside at over 105 kph. Eyewitnesses reported that a single ember was blown into a tree outside the burned area…and the tree exploded.
The so-called Tunnel Fire, fed by high winds and plenty of very inflammable fuel, was soon out of control. It quickly took off north, south, east, and west. Firefighters on the scene could only rescue and evacuate people as they called for aid. It took a while for more personnel and equipment to get there, for the roads quickly became clogged by fleeing residents.
Eventually more than 1,500 firefighters and 440 engine companies were working on the blaze. All their efforts were useless. The only thing that could and did save the City of Oakland was that the Diablo wind stopped blowing at around 5 p.m.
This allowed firefighters to start to contain the flames. Full containment was declared on the morning of October 23.
Twenty-five people had died and 150 were injured. Most of the bodies recovered were so badly burned, it was hard to identify them as human remains. Over 3,000 structures were incinerated. At over $1.5 billion, says FEMA, the Oakland firestorm caused the highest dollar fire loss in American history.
4. Canberra, Australia (2003)
This video by Australia’s ABC TV has a cussword in it. It also has an EF2 fire tornado (a fire whirl’s big daddy).
These two things are related.
Australia’s climate lends itself to extreme fire behavior. Heat and drought are common, and the strong winds that accompany summer storms in southeastern Australia can fan a bushfire into a firestorm.
In the summer of 2002-2003, a persistent El Nino event was causing a heat wave and drought in the Australian Capital Territory. On January 8, 2003, lightning sparked four fires in the Namadgi National Parks near Canberra. Small crews were sent out. Since the four fires were small in size and intensity and didn’t seem to be spreading, fire managers let them burn.
That turned out to be a big mistake.
No rain fell over the next eight days, but the weather was fairly benign and the four fires just smoldered along. Then the wind started picking up on the 17th. The fires moved toward Canberra.
By the 18th, the wind was stronger, with gusts. The four fires now merged into a 19-mile-wide firestorm that defied containment measures. Smoke particles soared into the stratosphere, where they were detected by satellite ozone sensors.
By 9 a.m. that day, sooty hail and burned leaves were falling on lawns in Canberra’s western suburbs. About six hours later, at about the time the firestorm was devouring the Mount Stromlo Observatory and its nearby pine plantations, a state of emergency was declared. In the next 15 minutes, homes within city limits began to burst into flame.
As we saw above, this firestorm spawned a fire tornado, at least EF2 (PDF) in intensity. This formed in the afternoon of the 18th near Mount Coree and was on the ground for over 30 miles, brushing the suburb of Chapman and finally lifting as it entered Kambah.
The firestorm dissipated in the evening as the winds slowed down, but the bushfires continued to burn until October 21. Amazingly, even with a firestorm PLUS the world’s first known fire tornado, only four people died.
3. Cedar Fire, California (2003)
Note: Per its YouTube poster, this time-lapse movie of the beginnings of the Cedar Fire was taken by UC San Diego remote cameras on Mt. Laguna. The explosive growth towards the end of the video happens when Santa Ana winds start up. See how the wind direction has changed? The plume on the right flattens out, I suspect, because it has reached the stratosphere. Overnight, tragically, this firestorm will move into populated areas.
California was once more the scene of firestorm, this time in October 2003.
It happened in San Diego County, which had received less rain than usual that year and was literally under siege from wildfires.
On October 25, with the humidity under 10% and with plenty of inflammable dead timber around, a lost hunter started a fire to signal for help. He quickly lost control of it.
Fire authorities were notified of the new blaze at around 5:30 p.m. Within ten minutes, response teams were on their way. They were hindered the area’s remoteness, rugged terrain, and the fire’s rapid growth in dry brush.
By 6 p.m., Santa Ana winds had begun to blow – they’re the equivalent of northern California’s Diablo winds. The wind fanned (PDF) the new fire into a firestorm.
The Cedar Fire was still in a remote area at this point, but overnight it moved into residential neighborhoods. All firefighters could do was try (PDF) to get ahead of it and warn people to get out.
At 1:15 a.m., the fire claimed its first house. Around 2 a.m. people started dying, either in their homes or while trying to evacuate. Twelve of the 15 people killed by this fire died this night.
The Cedar Fire went on to become the worst wildfire in California history, burning over 109,000 hectares and destroying 2,254 homes and businesses.
2. Black Saturday, Australia (2009)
The Australian state of Victoria tends to have a lot of bushfires. Its warm, moist spring weather encourages growth of plenty of vegetation that later dries into highly combustible fuel over the hot summer.
In the summer of 2008-2009, the region was baking under a heat wave. On February 7, Melbourne’s temperature soared to 46.4 degrees Celsius. Other towns were even hotter.
A stiff northwesterly breeze and very low humidity made the heat somewhat tolerable, but these two factors only increased the fire danger. Over 3,500 firefighters were deployed on the 7th, just in case, and a total fire ban was ordered throughout Victoria.
Around midday, high winds set off a power line arc that ignited nearby vegetation. The Kilmore East fire was on. It was only one of many fires this Black Saturday, but its extreme behavior made it the most deadly of them all.
It grew quickly, like the others, and traveled southeast, sparking many other smaller fires. Soon over a thousand firefighters were working this bushfire. Then, in the evening, the wind direction changed, turning its eastern flank into a 50-km-long front. The Kilmore East fire (PDF) now turned into a firestorm just as it impinged on several towns.
This single fire burned over 125,000 hectares and destroyed 1,242 homes. One hundred and nineteen people died in it (the overall death toll from Black Saturday fires was 173 – highest of any Australian bushfire).
As in Canberra back in 2003, pyrocumulus clouds soared as much as seven and a half miles into the sky.
One year later, satellites would use such clouds to prove that a firestorm had happened in one of the most remote parts of the world.
1. Nizhny Novgorod, Russia (2010)
Russia had its hottest day ever on July 11, 2010, when a temperature of 44 degrees Celsius was recorded. It was part of a summer long heat wave.
As of August 1, nearly 23,000 fires, many in forests and peat bogs, had been reported since the start of fire season, and 438 of them, including 57 big ones, were still burning (Russian language).
That day, NASA’s Aura satellite detected smoke in the stratosphere over Russia. A meteorologist with expertise in how fires inject smoke into the upper atmosphere suspected the particles had come from a firestorm. He started to check other satellite images and found the remains of an umbrella-shaped pyrocumulonimbus cloud drifting over northern Russia. A computer model traced it back to western Russia.
Russian authorities confirmed that, in the Nizhny Novgorod region of western Russia, on July 31 a firestorm had torn trees up by the roots.
Those Russians in the car video were really lucky that it was only a wildfire that almost trapped them.
When there is a firestorm, the only thing you can do, says the Texas A&M Forest Service, is get out of the way.
Firestorms may be stationary but can sometimes move very quickly even if they don’t spawn fire tornadoes.
They can kill at a distance: The intense heat will burn you or the inferno may commandeer all the oxygen, leaving none for you.
If you’re traveling, don’t let yourself be caught like the Russians were.
At home or on the road, if there is a wildfire in your area, follow the situation and the weather closely – even through the night, if need be.
Use your head and always make your own moves before the fire starts dictating them to you.
As for acts of war, well, in 2003, Isao Hashimoto made a time-lapse map of every nuclear explosion known between 1945 and the end of 1998:
There’s that. And then there’s this:
I have been insulted! I have been hurt! I have been beaten! I have been robbed! Anger does not cease in those who harbour this sort of thought.
I have been insulted! I have been hurt! I have been beaten! I have been robbed! Anger ceases in those who do not harbour this sort of thought.
Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law.
— Verses 3-5, Dhammapada
That’s an inner firestorm each and every one of us has to put out individually.
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