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Published September 10, 2010

While battling a blaze on the slopes of Mauna Kea in August, a Hawaii firefighter captured rare footage of a fire tornado. The flaming whirls can spew embers thousands of feet, helping wildfires spread.

© 2010 National Geographic; video courtesy Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources

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UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT

They’re called fire tornadoes. Or fire whirls. Or fire devils.

They’re a rarely-seen phenomenon that can be catastrophic.

This fire tornado was recorded in late August by a firefighter with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Fire tornadoes occur when intense heat causes air to rise and combine with whirling eddies of air. It consists of a core, and an invisible pocket of rotating air.

Because of the intense heat, the rotating air, mixed with gases from burning vegetation, can increase dramatically in intensity—lifting smoke, debris and embers high into the air.

Fire tornadoes can spew embers thousands of feet in the air—allowing wildfires to spread quickly.

The Hawaii firefighters were battling a 14-hundred acre blaze on the southern slope of Mauna Kea volcano.

This whirl is too dangerous to try and fight.

In the video, this fire whirl started with a narrow column of fire in the center of a small dust tornado. Then the tornado gets bigger, and the fire grows. In the end of the video, the fire sort of ‘explodes’ to be much larger and more dangerous. As the fire truck drives away you can see the enormity of the fire.

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