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Fighter Pilots and Satellites Capture Breathtaking Images of Pyrocumulus Clouds

Photo Credit: NASA
(This stunning true color satellite image shows pyrocumulus clouds, in Canada, from space.)

An exceptionally hot and dry summer in the Pacific Northwest has lead to large wildfires in parts of Oregon, Washington and California. And one fire in Oregon — the Oregon Gulch Fire — created a stunning Pyrocumulus cloud that belied the reality of the fire raging on the ground.

The images below, captured by Oregon Air National Guard F-15 pilots on a training mission, show the beauty of these destruction-induced clouds.

So, what causes a pyrocumulus cloud?

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Photo Credit: Oregon Air National Guard

Well, the main ingredient in a pyrocumulus clouds is very intense heat, the type of heat you might find under a raging wildfire or over the caldera of an erupting volcano. Warm air is much lighter than cool air and the intense heat generated by a wildfire, or a volcanic eruption, causes the air to rise rapidly. As this updraft races skyward, the air cools and water droplets begin to form. Those droplets crash into immense amount of ash, soot and other debris into the cloud. This is part of the reason why pyrocumulus clouds have a distinct gray or brown hue.

According to the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s “The Weather Guys,” if there’s enough moisture in the clouds, a cumulonimbus cloud can develop. The cloud is then called a pyrocumulonimbus and is capable of producing lightning due to the strong updrafts.

Oregon Air National Guard_Pyrocumulus_NWSMedford_2
Photo Credit: Oregon Air National Guard

The Oregon Gulch fire — located along the border of south-central Oregon and north-central California — is part of the larger Beaver Complex fire which has burned more than 36,700 acres. And at last check the fire was only 35% contained, but more than 1,700 personnel are on the ground working to get the blaze under control.

The forecast for the area calls for low rain chances, low relative humidity and temperatures in the mid-80s to low 90s through the weekend. Those certainly aren’t ideal conditions for firefighting.

Meteorologist Alan Raymond

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