Wildfire potential, March through June, 2015

The Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center has issued their Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for March through June. The data represents the cumulative forecasts of the eleven Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.

If their predictions are accurate, fire potential should be increasing in the upper midwest and mid-south, it is expected to be normal in the west, and higher than normal in Alaska and Hawaii.

Here are the highlights from their outlook.

March

March  wildfire potential

  • Above normal significant wildland fire potential exists across much of the Hawaiian Islands.
  • Below normal significant wildland fire potential is expected for the Southeast from Texas to the mid-Atlantic as well as Puerto Rico.
  • Normal significant wildland fire potential elsewhere.

April

April wildfire potential

  • Above normal significant wildland fire potential will develop throughout the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes.
  • Above normal significant wildland fire potential will continue across much of Hawaii.
  • Below normal significant wildland fire potential will continue along the coastal plain of the Southeast and through central Texas as well as Puerto Rico.

May through June

May June  wildfire potential

  • Above normal significant wildland fire potential will develop across portions of Southern California. Above normal significant wildland fire potential will continue across much of Hawaii.
  • Above normal significant wildland fire potential will reduce to normal across the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes.
  • Below normal significant wildland fire potential will develop across the Southwest and continue on the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast coasts.
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Another early start to the fire season?

Round Fire

The Round Fire north of Bishop, California, February 10, 2015. Photo by Jerry Dodrill, used with permission.

The High Country News has an interesting article about the lengthening of the wildfire seasons. Below is an excerpt:

…For local residents, [the 7,000-acre Round Fire north of Bishop, CA on February 10, 2015] drove home a message Westerners may finally have to get used to: Fire season isn’t just confined to the months of July and August anymore, or even May through September. Over the last four decades, the season across the West has gotten two and a half months longer. Last year, rare January fires swept across southern California. And just last week, the Round Fire wasn’t the only abnormally early burn to hit the West. A spate of wildfires broke out in northern Utah Feb. 8 and 9, burning a few hundred acres.

These early season fires owe much to the ongoing drought. The area burned by the Round Fire is usually covered in snow at this time of year, but [local photographer Jim] Stimson said the ground is bare. California’s paltry snowpack, dry soils and unseasonably warm temperatures make it easier for a spark, whether caused by humans or lightning, to catch and travel faster and farther than usual. While it’s nearly impossible to pin any particular fire event to climate change, we do know that the changing climate exacerbates the drought, which leads to more fires. Scientists say that Westerners can almost certainly expect more early-season fires like the Round, as climate change continues…

wildfire season length climate change

The orange bars show estimates of new fire season length by region. Graphic from the 2009 report from the Quadrennial Fire Review published in 2008, titled “The Future of Wildland Fire Management” by the Brookings Institution.

Article about the Round Fire on Wildfire Today.
Photos of the Round Fire on Wildfire Today.

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Weather forecasters embed with Special Forces

“Know the weather,” Sun Tzu advised around 320 B.C. “Your victory will then be total.”

On a large wildland fire there will most likely be a weather forecaster embedded with the Incident Management Team. Called an Incident Meteorologist, or IMET, they provide invaluable information about the weather that affects the behavior of the fire. Their localized forecasts, called “spot weather forecasts”, are enhanced by environmental data collected at the fire scene combined with a massive nationwide database of other observations and the output from computer models.

Incident Meteorologist

An Incident Meteorologist at a wildland fire. NOAA photo.

Since weather, along with topography and fuels, has a huge effect on what a wildfire does, Fire Behavior Analysts and Incident Management Teams rely heavily on IMETs. Their forecasts can help prevent firefighters from choosing a bad location from which to make a stand, or provide information that can help determine if a proposed burnout operation will be successful.

The military has relied on meteorologists to varying degrees over the last couple of hundred years. George Washington crossed the Delaware River during a blizzard so his troops would not be detected, and changed the course of the Revolutionary War. In 1979 the military attempted to rescue 52 Americans held captive in Iran, but instead of embedding weather forecasters before the operation began, they relied on desk meteorologists from thousands of miles away in Nebraska, who failed to detect or forecast shrouds of chalk-white dust, invisible to the satellites above, billowing for hundreds of miles near the surface. Three aircraft suffered accidents when trying to land or take off from the remote site — the mission failed before it really got started.

In recent years the military has again discovered the importance of having accurate weather forecasts, and the necessity of collecting weather observations and making forecasts from the scene of the action.

Before Seal Team Six raided the lair of Osama bin Laden, at least two Special Operations Weather Technicians, known as SOWT (pronounced sow-tee), were on the ground in Pakistan before the rest of the team arrived in their helicopters.

Special Operations Weather Team member

A Special Operations Weather Team member collects weather data using specialized equipment. Photo via NBC News.

NBC News has an excellent article about the SOWTs and the important role they are playing within the military. Below is an excerpt:

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“On a moonless night in October 2001, an American helicopter lifted off from an airbase in Uzbekistan, banking south on a covert mission into Afghanistan. Inside was one of America’s most elite and unknown special operators, hand-selected for a job so important that the wider war on terror hinged on its success.

In New York and Washington, D.C., the funerals continued. Families gave up hope of a miracle rescue in the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But if this soldier succeeded he would never shoot his gun and no one outside the military would know his work.

He was a weatherman.

More precisely, he was a special operations weather technician, known as a SOWT (pronounced sow-tee). As the Department of Defense’s only commando forecasters, SOWTs gather mission-impossible environmental data from some of the most hostile places on Earth.

They embed with Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Rangers. Ahead of major operations they also head in first for a go/no-go forecast. America’s parachutes don’t pop until a SOWT gives the all-clear.

That was Brady Armistead’s job as his helicopter rumbled toward a strip of desert 80 miles south of Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban government. He had a satellite forecast calling for clear skies. But satellite forecasts depend on ground data, too, and there was nothing from Afghanistan.

Five years earlier, when the Taliban seized power, it granted sanctuary to Al Qaeda and ruled by a strict interpretation of the Koran. No television or movies, mandatory burkas for women and long beards for men — plus no weather reports.

The Taliban considered forecasting to be sorcery. They fired the country’s 600 or so professional meteorologists, shelled the Afghan Meteorological Authority, and burned the country’s vast climatological archives.

That created a blind spot in global weather data, which is typically pooled and shared between the world’s governments. The Pentagon felt it had a fix in SOWTs like Armistead, jump-ready scientists with the God-given guts to do the weather behind enemy lines…”

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