Researchers got a rare look at thunderheads above the Williams Flats Fire

NASA photo This photo, shot from roughly 30,000 feet, shows the setting sun shining through thick smoke above the Williams Flats Fire. Particles in the smoke reflect light to make the sun appear orange.

Federal atmospheric scientists last week got an “exceedingly rare” look at thunderheads rising above columns of wildfire smoke from the Williams Flats Fire near Lake Roosevelt.

Fire clouds, or pyrocumulonimbus clouds, form when fires loft enough heat and moisture into the atmosphere to produce thunderstorms.

NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory passed directly through a large Williams Flats Fire cloud last Thursday.

The research involves a multi-agency study called FIREX-AQ and was the most detailed sampling of its kind in history.

NASA photo
A gray smoke plume from the Williams Flats Fire fed the pyrocumulonimbus cloud (white).

“The views were absolutely stunning,” said David Peterson, lead forecaster for FIREX-AQ. “Very few photographs of large pyroCbs are available, especially from the air.”

Scientists are researching the composition and chemistry of smoke and its impact on air quality and climate.

A second research plane flew over the plume a few hours earlier in the day and mobile labs on the ground made detailed measurements.

The Williams Flats Fire has burned about 45,000 acres and as of Tuesday was 50 percent contained. Firefighters hoped to have it fully contained later this week.