Whirlwinds are, by definition, swirling masses of air that originate at ground level and are never extensive. They generally occur in the summer when warm land surfaces heat the air rapidly, triggering cyclonic activity. Usually local, they rise only a few hundred feet. Observers will comment that "it looks like a tiny tornado."

When the whirlwind is spawned by fire, it becomes an entirely new kettle of stew. Tornado—like whirlwinds are sometimes formed when extreme heat is generated quickly, as in volcanoes and fires. The heat sends scalding air rushing upward, and the typical tornadic whirling action begins. One volcanologist watching the 1943 eruption of the Mexican volcano Paricutín recorded seeing a great rush of gas from the crater. It formed a miniature tornado about 20 feet in diameter that roared away as if propelled by some irresistible force.

On September 1, 1923, the Tokyo—Yokohama area of Japan was devastated by an earthquake that brought extraordinary destruction by flooding and fire. The final horror came from the "dragon twists" (Japan's descriptive name for the fire—induced whirlwinds). The intense heat generated from burning Tokyo sent hot air rushing upward at an estimated speed of over 150 miles per hour. It formed an immense pile of artificial cumulus clouds that actually extended higher into the atmosphere than Mount Everest. Survivors of the great earthquake watched horror—struck as writhing pillars of black smoke, skyscraper—high, whirled down upon them in true tornado style. Bodies were tossed in all directions as blazing human torches. The spectacle resembled a monumental fireworks display. In one sector alone, a single tornado fire whirlwind was estimated to have killed over 40,000 people!

Artificially induced whirlwinds can occur in forest fires, such as occurred on August 23, 1951, at Vincent Creek, Oregon. Firefighters noticed that, in the midst of violent whirling surface winds, a dark tornado—like tube was extending upward over the fire. The top was obscured by drift smoke at approximately 1,000 feet. The tornado winds were so extreme that a green Douglas fir about 40 inches in diameter at breast height was twisted and snapped off about 20 feet above the ground. Near this fire—whirling wind the flames leaped several times higher than those in surrounding areas, and treetops burst into flames like the flash of a powder keg as the fire whirled by. The fire tornado whirlwind disappeared and reappeared rapidly at least three times during a 10—minute interval.

People in bombed—out cities during World War II were no strangers to such whirlwinds. Fire raids were terrible enough, but when these raids turned into dreaded firestorms, all human effort to escape them was useless. During an air raid over Hamburg, Germany, on July 27, 1943, the rain of incendiaries and high explosives, and the fires started by them, turned the sultriness that had gripped the city into violent heat. The result was a firestorm that burned out eight square miles of the city.

Fires everywhere were suddenly linked together, heating the air above to such an extent that a violent updraft occurred. This caused the surrounding fresh air to be sucked in from all sides to the center of the fire areas. The terrific suction caused air movements much more powerful than normal, so that they became fire tornadoes. And, as is typical of tornadoes, the resultant funnels twisted large trees out of the ground, tossing them as giant torches into the air. Clothes were torn off people fleeing for shelter, and cars and trucks were overturned. To complete the devastation, the oxygen at ground level was burned up, and thousands suffocated in the bomb shelters. Truly, war was never more comparable to hell.

One of the most mind—boggling and disastrous firestorm catastrophes occurred in the United States, yet it is one of the least remembered and recorded of natural disasters. The incredible event was eclipsed by another catastrophic event that happened at the same time.

In 1871 a pair of gigantic firestorms drove flaming whirlwinds through a number of towns in Michigan and Wisconsin, killing more than 1,000 people. Autumn of that year was extremely dry in the Midwest, with no significant rain after July 8. Near the border of Wisconsin and Michigan small blazes plagued the loggers and sawmill operators because the dense pine forests along Green Bay were constantly victimized by careless hikers and campers. The local people, ever alert, managed to subdue most of the blazes.

Almost inevitably, in the face of so extreme a drought, on October 8, 1871, an ominous yellow veil of smoke hid the sun over Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The residents of this small lumber town had no way of knowing that a sudden rising wind had caused several scattered blazes to unite into a single conflagration that was advancing on them like an army of solid fire.

Shortly after 9 p.m. a fearful roaring came from the southwest, and a massive firestorm struck the town. Houses crumpled like paper; flaming roofs were borne away like gigantic fireworks. The air itself became so incendiary that people simply died by inhaling it, and hair and clothing exploded into flames. The people crowded into the Peshtigo River by the hundreds, fighting for space to submerge themselves between breaths. Several of the town merchants lowered their merchandise into wells, hoping to save it, and then lowered children on top of the goods. To their unspeakable chagrin, the merchants had actually condemned the children, because within minutes the goods would ignite, burning them to death immediately.

One man who recorded some of the happenings called this catastrophic wind a "tornado of fire." He described it further: "When I heard the roar of the approaching tornado I ran out of my house and saw a great black balloon—shaped object whirling through the air over the tops of the distant trees." What the man had seen was a whirlwind spawned not by weather but by fire. Scientists now know that large, intense blazes can create massive updrafts and surface winds with hurricane force. In turn, these winds spawn powerful vortices and become tornado—like whirlwinds!

Over 750 people died that day in Peshtigo. But it was not the only town to suffer so. On the other side of Green Bay another fiery tornado swept through the Door Peninsula. Between the two fires 23 towns and villages were devastated and hundreds of isolated farmsteads leveled. Authorities placed a conservative estimate of deaths at over 1,500, and at least 1.3 million acres of timberland were destroyed.

The event came to be called the Peshtigo Horror, yet news of this catastrophe did not rivet the attention of the nation, and it is still practically unknown. Why? On that very same evening, several hundred miles away, Mrs. O'Leary's legendary cow knocked over a lamp in its barn and set the building ablaze. Although the Peshtigo Horror resulted in over five times as many deaths, it was always well hidden in the shadow of the Great Chicago Fire.

Perhaps some day the film industry will make a movie of the Peshtigo Horror as they have done numerous times about the Chicago Fire. It would make a truly gripping disaster story.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning