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California’s intense wildfires are creating clouds like those over erupting volcanoes

Pyrocumulus and lenticular clouds billowing up from the Mendocino Complex fires on Sunday, July 29, 2018. Pyrocumulus clouds, usually seen over volcanoes, have appeared over several California wildfires including the Carr, Ferguson, Mendocino Complex and Cranston fires.
Pyrocumulus and lenticular clouds billowing up from the Mendocino Complex fires on Sunday, July 29, 2018. Pyrocumulus clouds, usually seen over volcanoes, have appeared over several California wildfires including the Carr, Ferguson, Mendocino Complex and Cranston fires.

More than a dozen wildfires are burning in California right now — some with so much intensity, they’re creating cloud formations usually seen over erupting volcanoes.

The clouds, known as pyrocumulus, are cumulus clouds that form when hot air and smoke are ”released into the sky during wildfires and volcanic eruptions”, according to LiveScience. Pyrocumulus clouds, which also formed during the Thomas Fire in December 2017, have been spotted coming from the Carr Fire near Redding, the Ferguson Fire in Mariposa County, the Mendocino Complex fires and the Cranston Fire near Idyllwild, according to social media posts from meteorologists and other observers.

Regular cumulus clouds form when the sun heats up the ground and creates warm air, which rises and then condenses into a cloud, according to CNN.

Pyrocumulus clouds form at a much faster rate, according to LiveScience. They “can even produce lightning and cause the winds to gust and blow in different directions,” CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said. The clouds can also produce rain that will sometimes put out the fire.

Nick Nauslar, a NOAA research scientist, said the clouds can create dangerous weather systems and potentially more wildfires, Live Science reported.

Pyrocumulus clouds that appear above volcanic eruptions produce lots of steam and appear black or dark brown from the volcanic ash, according to Outside Magazine. Pyrocumulus clouds that appear above wildfires “are usually dark gray due to the smoke and ash,” Outside reported.

On social media, meteorologists and observers alike have posted photos of pyrocumulus clouds they’ve spotted over the fires.

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Smoke from the Carr Fire and other wildfires in California and Oregon has drifted north to Washington and across Idaho, creating hazy skies across the region. Take precautions if you're sensitive to air pollution.

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