Bizarre Start to Wildfire Season

Firenados, arson, and a brewery in danger make news in California

May 16, 2014
Outside Magazine

This is what a fire tornado looks like. U.S. Air Force fire protection specialists battle one forming in a controlled blaze during a training exercise in New Jersey.    The National Guard/Flickr

High winds, temperatures, and drought have combined to create unprecedented fire activity in California this year. "Mother Nature was not on our side today," Cal Fire Captain Mike Mohler told CNN Thursday. Neither was a sense of normality, as a series of strange incidents followed the blazes that erupted this week.

Well, some of the incidents followed the blazes. Two teens in San Diego's Escondido area were arrested for arson on Thursday after starting at least two brush fires. Witnesses spotted the 17- and 19-year-olds starting small fires at Kit Carson Park. While one witness successfully extinguished one of the fires, another unsuccessfully chased the teens as they fled on bikes. Police later caught up.

Meanwhile that same day, the law-abiding citizens at Escondido's Stone Brewing Company had to evacuate their building as the Cocos fire in San Diego County forced evacuation of 13,000 homes and businesses in the area. Less well-founded arson suspicions made an appearance here too, as police questioned one man after reports of suspicious behavior near the brewery (they quickly ruled out arson). Still, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told ABC News that investigators aren't ruling out arson for many of the other fires. "We all have suspicions like the public does when we have nine fires that started all over the county," he said. "We are actively investigating the start of those fires."

Arson or not, these are significant blazes. In fact, smoke from area wildfires is visible from space. NASA's Aqua spacecraft released images of plumes stretching from San Diego into the Pacific Ocean. Closer to earth, onlookers watched an even more startling phenomenon: fire tornados, or "firenados." They look exactly as you might imagine—a funnel made entirely of flames stretching skyward.

Dozens of fires, about 10 of them large in scale, continue to burn thousands of acres throughout Southern California, forcing thousands to evacuate. As of Wednesday, there are reports of one death after firefighters discovered a badly burned body at a campsite in an evacuation area, and at least 20 buildings have been destroyed.

To get a better sense of what many Southern Californians might be seeing right now, watch a time-lapse video the folks at Stone Brewing Company took from their roof. They filmed from 10:17 a.m. to 12:43 p.m. on Thursday before discovering they were supposed to evacuate at 12:30 p.m.