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Review of Vortices in Wildland Fire

DOI: 10.1155/2011/984363

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Vortices are almost always present in the wildland fire environment and can sometimes interact with the fire in unpredictable ways, causing extreme fire behavior and safety concerns. In this paper, the current state of knowledge of the interaction of wildland fire and vortices is examined and reviewed. A basic introduction to vorticity is given, and the two common vortex forms in wildland fire are analyzed: fire whirls and horizontal roll vortices. Attention is given to mechanisms of formation and growth and how this information can be used by firefighters. 1. Introduction Large fire whirls are often one of the more spectacular aspects of fire behavior. Flames flow across the ground like water feeding into the base of the vortex, the lowest thousand feet of which often takes on an orange glow from combusting gases rising within the vortex core. Burning debris lofted within the vortex can lead to a scattering of spot fires some distance from the main fire. With their sudden formation, erratic movement, and often sudden dissipation, fire whirls are a good example of extreme fire behavior. However, other forms of vortices are actually quite common on wildland fires and receive less attention despite their potential to dramatically alter fire behavior. This paper is designed to provide a better understanding of vortices associated with wildland fires, both fire whirls, and horizontal roll vortices. A key point will be providing a basic understanding of what aspects of the fire environment contribute to the development and growth of these vortices. The next section supplies a brief introduction to vorticity, a measure of the atmosphere's tendency to spin or rotate about some axis. With this basic understanding of vorticity, we will examine the common vortex forms described in the fire behavior literature, fire whirls, and horizontal roll vortices. 2. Vorticity Basics Simply stated, vorticity is the measure of spin about an axis. That axis can be vertical, as in the case of a fire whirl, or horizontal for a roll vortex, or somewhere in between. Mathematically, vorticity is a vector quantity (it has both magnitude and directional information) that is defined as the curl of the wind field: or in component form: As a simple hypothetical example, take a vertical cross-section through a fire with no ambient horizontal winds (Figure 1). The vertical winds near the ground can be characterized by a strong updraft over the fire and descending air outside of the fire area. The change in the vertical velocity along the x-axis imparts rotation to the flow field about the


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