Tornado of Fire

As the summer break tapers to the end, I am reminded of my first week back in Singapore, my home country, where I spent my summer. I had severe fire withdrawal symptoms without lessons to keep me firing on which left me googling for fiery stuff to keep me busy. My search brought me to the Singapore Science Centre where they had a fire-themed exhibition topped with a Fire Tornado Demonstration. So off I went to the West of Singapore (honestly, it not that far… Singapore is a little island) for a visit to the Singapore Science Centre… (Disclaimer: I do NOT have a vested interest in the Singapore Science Centre). Before you raise your hopes up for some super sophisticated science centre, our science centre is quite… dated.. so don’t be surprised by the rudimentary (but still informative) exhibits. (Don’t worry, plans are in place for a new one soon… hope they will still have a fire themed exhibit though… but better!)

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What happens when something burns? How do matches, lighters and firecrackers work?  How does nature depend on fire?

While waiting for the main event i.e. the fire tornado, I walked around the (small) exhibition on fire. Somehow, it seems familiar…. apparently, this exact exhibition has been around since I was a kid. As I observe the kids around me enjoying their school holiday interacting with the fire exhibits… I wonder how many of them would be inspired to become fire engineers in the future! (though they probably wondering why a grown woman is reading the exhibits intently when it’s clearly meant for kids)

The exhibit covered simple basics of fire such as the fire triangle and introduced concepts such as the ignition point and fire chemistry. It then builds up to explain simply how things works such as hot air balloons, jet engines and explosives. These are done with the help of props and simple interactive activities to formulate an understanding for the kids. Although professors would be horrified if I started referencing to a kids exhibition for my assignments, it was refreshing to step away from the academic world of fire to a more relatable platform in the study of fire…. isn’t that why we are studying fire for… the people?

Then, the highlight of the day came as the scene was set for the fire tornado demonstration. Excitement grew as the audience were drawn towards a massive glass column in the middle of the atrium which metal vanes lining the bottom (which would prove to be key in the demonstration…). Before the start, in true fire safety style, the host reminded the audience to stand behind the yellow line to keep a safety distance away from the experiment and point out the emergency exits in case of emergency. Fire safety? CHECK!!!

The demonstration started with an introduction on how fire requires fuel, oxygen and heat to form. With a handful of powdered Lycopodium (dry spores of plants used in fireworks), she walked around scaring kids by attempting to light it up with an ignitor. To the relief of the kids, it does not light up despite having the 3 ingredients to make-up a fire. In order not to disappoint the crowd ready for some fire action, she blew the powder into the cylinder while lighting it up. OOOOHS and AHHHs followed as a fireball emerged. It was explained that when the powder is scattered in the air, it interacts with enough oxygen to ignite forming the great ball of fire. This sets the stage for the main act…

An innocent pool fire was formed in the middle of the cylinder… nothing fancy. However, as the hot air from the fire starts to rise, assisted by the extraction fan at the top of the cylindern,…the magic begins. The upward movement of the air within the column causes the make-up air lining the bottom of the cylinder to rush in. However, due to geometry of the vanes which are orientated to a single direction around the cylinder, the air rushing in forms a swirling motion to the air within the column… giving rise to a tornado effect all the way through the column. The fire tornado mesmerised the audience as it drew to extraordinary heights accompanied by dramatic music. It was an awesome sight to see a majestic vortex of fire towering within the column. However, as the audience were invited to touch the walls of the column after the fire has been extinguished, the heat felt from the glass walls of the column serves as a reminder of how deadly such fire tornadoes could be in the open.

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Fire tornadoes may occur in bush fires and forest fires given the right wind conditions. They are typically very dangerous and cannot be controlled as they have the potential to cause extensive fire spread and pose danger to fire fighters. As mentioned by Gerard in his earlier summer post, wildfires are posing increasing threats especially in the summer. Coupled with the danger of fire tornados, these wildfire could be potentially more deadly than imagined. Fortunately, such occurrences are still rare as it requires an ideal set of factors to form in place…. see below for a short clip on a real life fire tornado in Australia…

As I continue my search for more fiery adventures this summer, hope you would also take time to search around for any fiery titbits you could find around your home town. Even if its a lame exhibition or a cliche museum, there is always avenues for us to learn more about fire around us….

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