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Witnessing the 'devil': Standing eye to eye with a fire tornado

While scouting for a shooting location, an Australian filmmaker came upon the rare and often dangerous fire whirl

Editor's note: As part of our year-end coverage, we look back at some of 2012's biggest news stories and reconnect with some of those involved. In this article, we get a thrilling account of a filmmaker wrapping up his day's shooting when a very rare fire tornado appeared.

By Chris Tangey

The Northern Territory of Australia has only 250,000 souls, yet it is two and a half times the size of Texas, and just like Texas, everything is big here.

Our fires can rage for months, not days, and scorch areas larger than many countries. Where there is often nobody to get hurt, where water is rare and fire crews rarer, attempts to stop them are often made with graded fire breaks rather than H2O.

In such a place I found myself, 50 miles west of Uluru, the world’s largest single rock, late in the afternoon of an otherwise uneventful September day this year.

I had just finished location scouting for the upcoming movie “Tracks” trying to please a Director’s pretty fanciful view of outback Australia as a Saharan-like desert, whereas more truthfully it is really semi-desert or arid, rarely completely devoid of vegetation.

The area I was looking at had already been scouted, but a recent, deliberately lit fire had brought me back there as the week-long event had since denuded the sand dunes to the “look” the director was looking for.

After finishing for the day, the cattle station manager had heard a crackling on the ultra-high frequency radio from two of the workers down near a salt lake where the grader had been making fire breaks.

They had tried to move the grader to safety as the front approached but couldn't start it.

We raced down a red sandy track and at one point had to make a run for it as the flames approached.

When we arrived the workers had moved their Toyota pick-up onto the salt lake, but the half million dollar grader still needed driving to safety.

I knew the manager would have no trouble in starting it so I asked him if I could shoot some of the fire for "file footage" while I was waiting.

"No worries" he said.

After a couple of minutes I couldn’t help but hear this odd noise to my right and turned to find the grader had been moved with the station manager now standing on top of the cabin with his little toy camera.

“What the hell is that!” he yelled.

I didn’t really know, but went into the TV cameraman “zone” that we all have to go into when recording a news event.

For the next 40 minutes I kept rolling on these “things” just 300 meters away, black one minute, white, gray or red in another depending on the material they were picking up at the time.

Mostly though, they were made of pure fire. I realized something unusual was going on when I saw the red “dust devils” weren’t pulling red dust into the sky but the much heavier red sand, hundreds of tons of it.

The noise was something else, a terrifying roar like a jet engine, with a low rumbling that went right through us.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune to have a TV camera on a tripod already rolling whilst in total safety with my back to a salt lake!

I know many reading this have seen any number of fire whirls, many much larger too. I was blessed though, to record several of these “pillars of fire” unobstructed, close-by, on a tripod with a full high definition TV camera on hand.

Maybe I should have bought a lottery ticket the next day.

Why was this one so intense? The theory is that when this fire hit a large patch of spinifex (triodia) grass that had been protected from burning for some 55 years it had somehow built up a huge load of the highly flammable resin the grass contains.

For this reason spinifex burns intensely hot with black smoke not unlike that of a pile of burning tires. Combine this with almost nil wind speed at ground level and what appeared to be a wind shear at 100 metre height and we have a spectacular event waiting to happen.

But I‘ll leave the theorizing to the fire scientists—all I know is I wouldn’t have missed it for a million dollars!

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