Anatomy of a Wildfire
The 2011 Las Conchas wildfire was big even before it blew up on June 27.
A) A Giant Rises
Extreme heat lofts smoke, ash, and fire into the atmosphere, forging a 45,000-foot-tall convective column that generates two counterrotating vortexes—like a giant egg beater.
B) A Pyrocumulus Cloud
Burning vegetation releases moisture, which the fire’s heat drives up the plume. It condenses into a pyrocumulus cloud, which in turn can create extreme downdrafting winds that can further stoke the ground fire.
As vegetation combusts, it releases fuel-rich hydrocarbons. Driven by updrafts, they rise and can ignite into towers of swirling flame.
D) Flaming Pine Cones
The massive vertical winds inside the column can rip a pine cone off a branch, set it on fire, shoot it a few hundred feet into the air, then spit it as far as 2 miles away, where it can start a new fire.