Fire tornado video

This video, featured on the Catalyst TV show broadcast on ABC TV on 6 June 2013, was taken by Kambah resident Tom Bates. It contains some spectacular things, recorded on video for the first and only time.

Notes on the video

On the afternoon of the 18th January, 2003, the fires that had been burning to the west of Canberra were influenced by elevated fire danger and enhanced atmospheric instability. These produced a series of blow-up fire events across the landscape, which in turn produced a set of pyro-cumulonimbus (pyroCb) fire clouds. These are still amongst the most extreme fire clouds ever recorded. They produced many of the phenomena associated with severe thunderstorms, including a severe tornado.

The mid-level winds that afternoon carried the storms cells to the east-southeast, towards Canberra’s urban edge.
While many people in their path were focused on staying alive, Tom Bates was sufficiently out of harm’s way to use his video camera to record events. What he captured is – globally – unique. He was standing just west of the car park at the very southern tip of Kambah Playing Fields, looking northwest to Mt Arawang. A prominent part of the footage is the football goal post of the southern playing field.

To 0:17 – we see fire struggling to surge over the top of Mt Awawang or around the southern flank. Clearly the fire on the hidden face of the hill is of an extreme nature. The purplish glow is typical of footage taken under a pyroCb, and reflects the difficulties that digital cameras have operating in such low-light contexts.

To 0:52 – we see some spotfires start of the face seen by the camera and move to image right at 30 km/hr. These speeds have never before been recorded.
To 0:56 – just before the camera pans right we see something never before recorded – a landscape-scale flashover. Here partial combustion products in the air over the hillside suddenly receive an injection of oxygen and they complete their combustion within the space of two film frames – say 120 ha in 0.04 seconds. No other instance of this has ever been recorded on video.

To 1:25 – here the photographer has seen what caused the flashover. A large tornado is moving around the limb of Mt Arawang, in the vicinity of Kambah Fire Station. There is no other record on video of a confirmed fire tornado. At this point the tornado is moving over fire, and much lofted flame is visible. It has now shrunk a basal diameter of 0.25km, and has horizontal winds in excess of 250km/hr.
To 2:15 – after panning to a dark field and returning, the camera has a better aperture setting and we can see far more detail in the tornado as it tracks to the east-southeast. The vertical air speed in over 150km/hr.

To 3:21 – the photographer describes the conditions where he is – being sand-blasted, etc. We see debris falling out of the sky, and see people walking past apparently without noticing the spectacle behind them.
Photographer: Tom Bates.

Copyright: ACT Emergency Services Agency. Access to this video is provided to ensure a safer community.

This page was last modified on June 13th, 2013