The most intense firestorms in the world

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When a wildfire reaches epic proportions, it changes everything around it – even creating its own weather. Scientists around the world are racing against time to understand them.

One afternoon in June 2017, villagers in Pedrógão Grande, a small municipality in central Portugal, saw a column of smoke about 1m (3ft) wide approaching from several miles away to the north. Firefighters were on the scene within minutes, but by that point the wind speed around the fire had accelerated and the smoke plume had expanded to nearly a kilometre (0.6 miles) wide.

As the afternoon went on, the fire gained speed and heat rapidly, and the plume of smoke grew wider and taller until a dark, thunderous cloud started to form, high up in the atmosphere. Far from being a welcome sign of rain, this was a highly unusual kind of thundercloud.

Over in Washington DC, Mike Fromm, a meteorologist at the US Naval Research Laboratory who collaborates with Nasa, was tipped off by an Australian scientist about the news emerging from Portugal.

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