Firenado? Bambi Bucket? A guide to wildfire vocabulary

Amid a hellscape of glowing coals, a fiery column recently took
flight in Northern California, spinning against a red sky. The name
for it? Firenado.

“I had never heard of a fire tornado until today and I really
kind of hope I never see a firenado again in my life,” music
video producer Robby Starbuck said in a
tweet that went viral
.

Yes, a firenado is a real thing. Same with pyrocumulus,
wildland-urban interface, and Bambi Buckets. This month’s rash of
fires brought wildfire jargon to the masses, and the masses (myself
included) were pretty confused. I wondered what other fire words
and concepts people were encountering for the first time as they
read about the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California
history.

What does it mean, for instance, when a wildfire is 45 percent
“contained”? What the heck are the “Santa Ana winds,” other
than a frequent crossword answer? And is there a difference between
a “firenado” and a “fire whirl”?

To understand these bewildering terms, I turned to Andrea Thode,
a fire ecologist at Northern Arizona University. She acknowledged
that these new words could be daunting for outsiders.
“Terminology in the fire world is … there is a lot,” she told
me. To illustrate, she asked if I’d seen the National Wildfire
Coordinating Group’s
183-page glossary
of wildfire terminology — yes, that’s 183
pages, not 183 words.

With
climate change making wildfires worse
, you’re sure to be
hearing these pyro-specific words for the rest of your life. You
might as well learn them now.

Bambi Bucket

No, it’s not an oversized pail to rescue lost fawns. A Bambi
Bucket is a collapsible bucket that hangs from a helicopter to
collect water and dump it on wildfires. What’s with the name? The
inventor, Don Arney,
made it up as a joke name
for the bucket he planned to planned
to call SEI-Flex after his company, SEI Industries. Then a friend
pressured him into making it the real name. End of story.

A helicopter pours water
on fires. aapsky / Getty Images

Containment

The Camp Fire was 45 percent “contained” as of Friday,
according to Cal
Fire
. That doesn’t mean 45 percent of the fire has been
extinguished. It means that firefighters have surrounded 45 percent
of the perimeter around the fire with “containment lines” —
rivers, trenches, and other physical barriers that prevent fire
from creeping past. The percentage is a judgment call on the part
of the fire teams, Thode says. Generally, they underreport the
figure until the very end, because it would be embarrassing to call
it contained and then have the fire run wild again.

Defensible space

If you live in a fire-prone area, it’s a good idea to take
precautions to protect yourself. You want the area around your
house, called “defensible
space
,” to be free of dead plants, wood piles, and anything
that could turn into tinder so that wildfires bearing down on your
belongings don’t get any help.

Jan van Rooyen

Firenado

A fire tornado — a spinning column of whirling, red-hot air
— is nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term to
1871, shortly after the Great Chicago Fire. It’s also known as a
“fire whirl,” though some experts
maintain there’s a difference
between the two, reserving
“firenado” for a vortex so big and strong that it’s
comparable to a typical, fire-free tornado. During the Carr Fire in
California this summer, one of these twisters packed 143-mph winds
— the equivalent of an EF-3 rating on the
tornado-damage scale
. Thode, for one, doesn’t make a
distinction: “I wouldn’t say a fire tornado is different from a
fire whirl.”

Fuel

Will it burn? If the answer is yes, it’s fuel. Anything
flammable counts. So not just gasoline and trees, but also houses,

hand towels
, and non-dairy
creamer
.

Inversion

An inversion is an atmospheric imbalance that occurs when a belt
of warm air sits over cold air. That’s the reverse of normal,
stable conditions, in which it gets colder as you go up in
elevation. Like a lid on a pan, an inversion can trap smoke. “It
can make it really smoky for people underneath the inversion,
because the smoke can’t punch out and get away,” Thode
says.

Rising smoke is stopped
by an overlying layer of warmer air due to a temperature inversion.
S / V Moonrise

Prescribed fires

It’s a common forest-management practice to set fires on
purpose — in a careful, planned way, of course. Indigenous groups
did this for thousands of years. But until recently (like 1995),
the U.S. actively suppressed any and all wildfires, leading to a
buildup of fuel in our forests. Prescribed burns take out overgrown
brush, encourage the growth of native plants, and reduce the risk
of catastrophic fires.

Pyrocumulus

Evil-looking mushroom clouds sometimes form over a really hot
wildfire. The name says it all. Cumulus clouds are those puffy,
cotton-like clouds that people lying in the grass like to imagine
are animals floating in the sky. Add fire (pyro) and you get the
sinister name. As flames burn the moisture out of vegetation, they
release water vapor and hot air that rise up and form a cumulus
cloud. On rare occasions, rain falls from these clouds, snuffing
out the flames below. Also known by the name “flammagenitus,”
pyrocumulous clouds sometimes form over volcanic eruptions too.

A pyrocumulus cloud forms
above a wildfire. Skyhobo / Getty Images

Red flag warning

Growing up near the Great Lakes, I thought red flags warned of

dangerous currents
in the water. But no. It’s fire lingo for
when warm temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds lead to a
high risk of
fire
.

Santa Ana winds

Speaking of strong winds … the infamous Santa Ana winds

fanned the flames
of the Camp Fire. These hot, dry winds roll
from the Great Basin into Southern California in the fall, gusting
over already-dry terrain and getting warmer as they go. They’re
part of a larger category of pressure-based winds called
“foehn” winds, which flow from high-pressure areas in the
mountains down into low-pressure areas. “Typically you would see
these Santa Ana winds, but you wouldn’t see fuels this dry,”
Thode says. “Climate is definitely playing a role in this.”

Wildland-urban interface

This is the zone where the natural environment meets the built
environment. Wherever you have homes, corrals, and powerlines
butting up against undeveloped forests or grasslands, it could mean
trouble for nearby towns and cities. That’s because fire can
easily spread from vegetation to grandma’s house.

One final fire-tangential term to keep in mind: the “new
abnormal.” A few months ago, California Governor Jerry Brown
called the increase in destructive fires “the
new normal
,” but he recently tweaked the term.

“This is the new abnormal,” he said at
a press conference on Sunday
. “Unfortunately, the best
science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those
things, they’re going to intensify.”


Seven of the 10 biggest wildfires
in California history have
occurred in the last decade. If we want to escape a future filled
with firenadoes and pyrocumlous clouds, we’ve gotta get our act
together on climate change.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
Firenado? Bambi Bucket? A guide to wildfire vocabulary
on Nov
16, 2018.

Source: FS – All – Science – News
Firenado? Bambi Bucket? A guide to wildfire vocabulary