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Evolution of a pyrocumulonimbus event associated with an extreme wildfire in Tasmania, Australia

Author(s): Mercy N. Ndalila, Grant J. Williamson, Paul Fox-Hughes, J. Sharples, David M. J. S. Bowman
Year Published: 2020

Extreme fires have substantial adverse effects on society and natural ecosystems. Such events can be associated with the intense coupling of fire behaviour with the atmosphere, resulting in extreme fire characteristics such as pyrocumulonimbus cloud (pyroCb) development. Concern that anthropogenic climate change is increasing the occurrence of pyroCbs globally is driving more focused research into these meteorological phenomena. Using 6 min scans from a nearby weather radar, we describe the development of a pyroCb during the afternoon of 4 January 2013 above the Forcett–Dunalley fire in south-eastern Tasmania. We relate storm development to (1) near-surface weather using the McArthur forest fire danger index (FFDI) and the C-Haines index, the latter of which is a measure of the vertical atmospheric stability and dryness, both derived from gridded weather reanalysis for Tasmania (BARRA-TA); and (2) a chronosequence of fire severity derived from remote sensing. We show that the pyroCb rapidly developed over a 24 min period on the afternoon of 4 January, with the cloud top reaching a height of 15 km. The pyroCb was associated with a highly unstable lower atmosphere (C-Haines value of 10–11) and severe–marginally extreme (FFDI 60–75) near-surface fire weather, and it formed over an area of forest that was severely burned (total crown defoliation). We use spatial patterns of elevated fire weather in Tasmania and fire weather during major runs of large wildfires in Tasmania for the period from 2007 to 2016 to geographically and historically contextualise this pyroCb event. Although the Forcett–Dunalley fire is the only known record of a pyroCb in Tasmania, our results show that eastern and south-eastern Tasmania are prone to the conjunction of high FFDI and C-Haines values that have been associated with pyroCb development. Our findings have implications for fire weather forecasting and wildfire management, and they highlight the vulnerability of south-east Tasmania to extreme fire events.

Citation: Ndalila, M. N., Williamson, G. J., Fox-Hughes, P., Sharples, J., and Bowman, D. M. J. S.: Evolution of a pyrocumulonimbus event associated with an extreme wildfire in Tasmania, Australia, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 1497–1511, https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-20-1497-2020, 2020.
Topic(s): Fire Behavior, Extreme Fire Behavior
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 21538
Record updated: Jul 10, 2020