AskDefine | Define firestorm

Dictionary Definition



1 a storm in which violent winds are drawn into the column of hot air rising over a severely bombed area
2 an outburst of controversy; "the incident triggered a political firestorm"

User Contributed Dictionary



From fire + storm.


  1. A fire whose intensity is greatly increased by inrushing winds
  2. An intense or violent response

Extensive Definition

A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest bushfires, forest fires, and wildfires. The Great Peshtigo Fire and the Ash Wednesday fires are two examples of a firestorm. Firestorms can also be deliberate effects of targeted explosives such as occurred as a result of the aerial bombings of Dresden, Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II.

Mechanism of firestorms

A firestorm is created as a result of stack effect as the heat of the original fire draws in more and more of the surrounding air. This draft can be quickly increased if a low level jet stream exists over or near the fire, or when an atmospheric temperature inversion cap is pierced by it. As the updraft mushrooms, strong gusty winds develop around the fire, directed inward. This would seem to prevent the firestorm from spreading on the wind, but for the fact that tremendous turbulence is also created by the strong updraft which causes the strong surface inflow winds to change direction erratically. This wind shear is capable of producing small tornado or dust devil like circulations called fire whirls which can also dart around erratically, damage or destroy houses and buildings, and quickly spread the fire to areas outside the central area of the fire.
The greater draft of a firestorm draws in greater quantities of oxygen which significantly increases combustion, thereby also substantially increasing the production of heat. The intense heat of a firestorm manifests largely as radiated heat (infrared radiation) which ignites flammable material at a distance ahead of the fire itself.
Besides the enormous ash cloud produced by a firestorm, under the right conditions, it can also induce condensation, forming a pyrocumulus cloud or "fire cloud". A large pyrocumulus can produce lightning, which can set off further fires. Apart from forest fires, pyrocumuluses can also be produced by volcanic eruptions.
In Australia, the prevalence of eucalyptus trees that have oil in their leaves results in forest fires that are noted for their extremely tall and intense flame front. Hence the bush fires appear more as a fire-storm than a simple forest fire.

Firestorms in wildfires

Firestorms often appear in thalwegs or crests or on plateaus. Warning signs include:
  • Decreased visibility;
  • Decreased sound conduction;
  • Breathing difficulties (firefighters do not use SCBA on wildfires);
  • Roasting (pyrolysis) of the leaves by the radiated heat.
Some plants protect themselves from the heat of fire by two mechanisms: evapotranspiration, and the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOC). In case of drought, especially when the humidity is less than 30%, the emission of VOC is more important as evapotranspiration is drastically reduced.
When a fire comes nearer, the emission of VOC is increased to fight the rise of temperature; at 170 °C, the rosemary plant emits 55 times more terpene than at 50 °C. A temperature of 170 °C is considered a critical temperature, at which the emission of VOC can lead to an explosive mix with the air and thus to a flash over. Additionally, the fire itself emits pyrolysis gases that are not burnt, and that mix with the VOC; the explosive mix can be reached faster.
The topography has a complex influence. A closed relief, such as a small valley or a dry river, concentrates the heat and thus the emission of VOC, especially for rosemary, rockrose or Aleppo Pine. Contrarily, the kermes oak emits more VOC on an open relief such as plain or plateau.
Other factors that influence the occurrence of a firestorm are the natural heat, especially above 35 °C in the shadow, a humidity less than 30% and no strong wind. These conditions are met in climates such as Mediterranean forests.
The firestorms can be classified in several types:
  • Thermal bubble: at the bottom of a small valley rich in combustible materials (plants), the combustible gas forms a bubble that cannot mix with the air because its temperature is too high; this bubble moves randomly, pushed by the wind.
  • Fire carpet: in a deep and opened small valley, the whole valley catches fire.
  • Confinement by a layer of cold air: a strong and cold wind prevents the pyrolysis gas from rising, which leads to the explosive situation.
  • Pyrolysis of the opposite slope: the fire progresses down a slope, but the radiated heat pyrolyses the plants on the facing slope, which catches fire seemingly spontaneously.
  • Bottom of a small valley: the gases accumulate in the bed of a dry river; when the fire comes, it completes the fire triangle and the bottom of the valley catches fire.

Firestorms in cities

The same underlying combustion physics can also apply to man-made structures such as cities.
Firestorms are thought to have been part of the mechanism of large urban fires such as the Great Fire of Rome, the Great Fire of London, the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, and the fires resulting from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Firestorms were also created by the firebombing raids of World War II in cities like Tokyo, Kobe, Hiroshima, Hamburg and Dresden.
Early in World War II many British cities were firebombed, a particularly notable raid was the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1940. During the Coventry Blitz the Germans pioneered several innovations which were to influence all future strategic bomber raids during the war. These were: The use of pathfinder aircraft with electronic aids to navigate, to mark the targets before the main bomber raid; The use of high explosive bombs and air-mines (blockbuster bombs) coupled with thousands of incendiary bombs intended to set the city ablaze. The first wave of follow-up bombers dropped high explosive bombs, the intent of which was knock out the utilities (the water supply, electricity network and gas mains), and to crater the road - making it difficult for the fire engines to reach fires started by the follow-up waves of bombers. The follow-up waves dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs. There were two types of incendiary bombs: those made of magnesium and those made of petroleum. The high explosive bombs and the larger air-mines were not only designed to hamper the Coventry fire brigade, they were also intended to damage roofs, making it easier for the incendiary bombs to fall into buildings and ignite them.
Arthur Travers Harris, commander of RAF Bomber Command, wrote after the war "Coventry was adequately concentrated in point of space [to start a firestorm], but all the same there was little concentration in point of time", so a firestorm was not ignited. It would not be until later in the war when "Bomber" Harris and the RAF managed sufficient concentration of bombers over one target close to simultaneously that a fire storm could be ignited. For example during the Dresden raid on February 13 1945, first attack was carried out entirely by No. 5 Group, using their own low-level marking methods and tactics. The pathfinders marked the Ostragehege stadium as the initial aiming point and each bomber fanned out from that point releasing their bombs at slightly different preassigned times on slightly different preassigned trajectories. The first bombs of No. 5 Group were released at 22:14 (CET) with all but one bomber releasing all their bombs within two minutes. The fan shaped area of destruction that the 244 Lancaster bombers created was one and a quarter miles long and at its extreme about one and three quarters miles wide. This raid by the RAF, with follow up raids by more RAF bombers and bombers of the USAAF, caused one of the most devastating and famous firestorms in history.
Nuclear weapons can also create firestorms in urban areas. This was responsible for a large portion of the destruction at Hiroshima.

See also


Further reading

firestorm in German: Feuersturm
firestorm in Spanish: Tormenta ígnea
firestorm in French: embrasement généralisé éclair
firestorm in Japanese: 火災旋風
firestorm in Polish: Burza ogniowa
firestorm in Russian: Огненный смерч
firestorm in Slovenian: Ognjeni vihar
firestorm in Swedish: Eldstorm
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