McKinney Fire in California Hits the Stratosphere, Creating Its Own Thunder and Lightning Storms

The McKinney fire does a slow burn in the Klamath Forest near Yreka on Tuesday. The Northern California blaze has charred more than 51,000 acres and killed four people. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A fire big enough to make its own lightning used to be as rare as it sounds.

But the McKinney fire, which erupted Friday, generated four separate thunder and lightning storms within its first 24 hours alone. A deadly combination of intense heat, parched vegetation and dry conditions has turned the 55,000-acre blaze in the Klamath National Forest into its own force of nature.

Four separate times, columns of smoke rose from the flames beyond the altitude at which a typical jet flies, penetrating the stratosphere and injecting a plume of soot and ash miles above the Earth’s surface. It’s a phenomenon known as a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, a byproduct of fire that NASA once memorably described as “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds.”

In Siskiyou County, the water in these clouds returned to Earth as rain, accompanied by thunder, wind and lightning, in “a classic example of a wildfire producing its own weather,” said David Peterson, a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which has developed an algorithm to distinguish fire-induced thunderstorms from traditional ones.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the McKinney fire, which grew rapidly in hilly, challenging terrain and was uncontained as of Tuesday.

Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at Thompson Rivers University in western Canada, said he isn’t shocked to see fires this powerful. The data have been pointing in this direction for years. He just didn’t think they’d be happening this soon.

“What we’re seeing in the western United States and in British Columbia in the last few years, I would not have expected to see until 2040,” Flannigan said. “The signal is clear: this is due to human-caused climate change. It can’t be any clearer than that. It’s happening more rapidly than I would have expected. This is my field, and this is surprising how rapidly things are changing.”

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SOURCE: LA Times, Corinne Purtill