Mountain Town News: The terrifying spectacle of wildfire tornadoes 

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK - TWISTERS Research shows "fire whirls" can be astonishingly powerful.
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  • TWISTERS Research shows "fire whirls" can be astonishingly powerful.

REDDING, Calif. – Small tornadoes occur commonly enough in wildfires. One was observed in early July near the Weston Pass wildfire in the Mosquito Range of central Colorado.

Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley says most "fire whirls," as they are commonly called, are only 1.8 metres to 2.4 m tall and last just a few seconds. But the one that killed a firefighter this summer in the megafire at Redding, Calif., was "totally different," he says.

The San Francisco Chronicle said the tornado had a base the size of three football fields, winds up to 265 kilometres an hour, and temperatures of at least 1,482 C. That's nearly double the heat generated by a typical wildfire.

Craig Clements, director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University, also thought this one was different. "Fire whirls occur all the time. What was unusual about this one was the strength of the surface winds and the size," he told the Chronicle. "This was a meteorological phenomenon."

Even experts were spooked by the fire at Redding. They say "extreme fire behaviour" has become more frequent, more violent, and more destructive. The tornadoes they produce are nearly impossible to predict.

Even so, deadly fire whirls have occurred before. The worst occurred in Japan in 1923 following an earthquake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama. The earthquake and an associated tsunami were deadly, killing 142,800 people. But the single largest cause of death was a "fire dragon" produced as a result of the fires caused by the earthquake. The tornado incinerated 38,000 people in Tokyo within 15 minutes.

Also notable was a 2003 fire in Australia that killed four people and injured 492. A fire whirl in California, at San Luis Obispo, in 1926 lifted an entire home into the air and carried it across a field, killing two people.

Durango name to stay, but brewery will be elsewhere

DURANGO, Colo. – What's with the mountain town breweries fleeing for the flatlands? Several years ago, the Grand Lake Brewery, founded in the town of the same name at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, decamped for a Denver suburb. For that matter, Breckenridge Brewery always was in Denver.

Now, Durango Brewing Co., the third oldest microbrewery in Colorado, with a founding date of 1990, has closed its tap room in Durango. Instead of Denver, operations are being moved to the Colorado farming town of La Junta. It's on the Great Plains, 300 miles east of Durango.

The Durango Herald says that the beer will retain the name Durango. The company's canned beer has been brewed in La Junta since early in 2018. Now, the bottled beer will be, too.

Why move to a farming town on the Great Plains? Denver's Westword indicated what was to come in 2015 after the brewery was purchased by a Denver-based investment group called Gold Buckle Brewing.

Gold Buckle's Andrea Allison told Westword that the company planned to grow the Durango brand and sales in Colorado, then begin pushing beyond Colorado. Part of that plan was to begin brewing operations in La Junta, where Gold Buckle had purchased a 17,187- square-metre pickle-and-relish plant that closed in 2006.

The pickle factory's infrastructure was easily adapted to a brewery, she said. The plant might also be used to contract-brew for other breweries in Colorado and elsewhere as needed. It is also being used to brew beer under the brand of a Las Vegas-area brewery also owned by Gold Buckle.

La Junta, despite being a farm town, already has mountain-town connections: tiny houses purchased by the Aspen Skiing Co. for employee houses were built in La Junta. Ironically, much of the water in the adjoining Arkansas River comes from the Aspen area via a series of tunnels underneath the Sawatch Range.

As for Durango, there's no need for thirst. The town will still have five breweries.

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