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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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May 16th, 2014
05:02 PM ET

How does a 'firenado' form?

(CNN) – One of the biggest dangers facing fire fighters battling the blaze in California is a day with rapidly changing weather and winds which can push a fire in any direction.

But how does that sort of action translate into a whirlwind of fire, or a "firenado"?

Here is what happens: an intense wildfire burns on what meteorologists would call an unstable day, meaning a day with pockets or variable temperature. That fire runs into a good, hot fuel source, like low brush, or grasses, or trees.

The fire is roaring away at 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Farenheit, when a pocket of cold air appears above it.

All of that heat starts rising rapidly into that colder space, the hot and cold start whirling around each other, and the "fire devil," as some call it, is born.

Once in a while, true tornadoes with winds blowing hundreds of miles an hour occur in wild land fires.

They are dangerous, in part because these firenadoes can and do lay over sideways, projecting fire across the ground like a blowtorch.

Even when they are upright, the tops can fling embers hundreds of feet, potentially behind any firefighters or citizens who are too close to the firenado, creating a ring of fire in which those people can be trapped.

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