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The devastating fires in southeastern Australia have renewed focus on the dangers that extreme drought and heat can pose to society. Last week, fires erupted near populated areas in Victoria and New South Wales with destructive effects, resulting in one of Australia’s largest evacuations. NASA’s CALIPSO satellite provided data for a new animation that showed the aerosols generated from the smoke has spread high into the atmosphere and far to the east over the Pacific Ocean.

The intense heat from the bush and forest fires initiated unusual convective storms known as pyrocumulonimbus storms (pyroCbs). 

“Large and numerous pyrocumulonimbus events are relatively rare — especially at this scale,” said Chip Trepte, CALIPSO’s Project Scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.    

These storms are fueled by both heat from the fires and water vapor in the atmosphere, which allow them to grow into thunderstorms.  Strong winds from these storms can fan fires into raging infernos.  There have been more than 20 firestorms just in the past week. And Mike Fromm and colleagues from the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, are still counting.

“By our measures, this is the most extreme pyrocumulonimbus storm outbreak in Australia,” Fromm said.

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Jacob Reed, NASA Disasters