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.
The award-winning Los Angeles Times’ photo staff works across Southern California, the state, the nation and the world to bring readers images that inform and inspire daily. A complete list of the Visual Journalism staff can be found on the Newsroom Directory. Recent galleries can be seen on our photography page.