Given forecast, meteorologist thinks crews should have been pulled from Twisp fire

twisp river fire fatalities
The general area of the fatalities. They were found 40 feet off Woods Canyon Road. The 3-D map is looking north.

Could the fatal fire behavior near Twisp, Washington have been predicted?

One scientist, Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, thinks the erratic winds on Aug. 19 that fueled the flames that killed three firefighters were forecasted at least a day before.

In a recent blog post, Mass gave an in-depth analysis of wind patterns and weather on Aug. 19 to back-up his assertion that all crews should have been pulled from the line before the winds picked up.

“I believe the windshift/wind acceleration that occurred Wed. afternoon was entirely predictable.  It was not random, it was not extreme or a new normal,” Mass wrote. “My profession needs to work with the fire community to ensure such tragedies are prevented.”

The goal of the blog isn’t to place blame, Mass said, but instead to highlight an important issue while there are still crews fighting fires around the Pacific Northwest.

Cliff Mass blog, Aug. 30, 2015
Cliff Mass blog, Aug. 30, 2015

Mass’ analysis of the models shows a major wind transition across the Cascades between noon and 3 p.m. But Mass also found weather prediction models released at 5 p.m. the day before that predicted the same shift in winds.

“Thus, wildfire folks should have been pre-warned of a major wind shift and acceleration and probably should have been pulled back that afternoon,” Mass said.

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3 thoughts on “Given forecast, meteorologist thinks crews should have been pulled from Twisp fire”

  1. Huh. I started this on 8/24 to post that day but let it go. Now a meteorological authority has jumped onto my wagon.

    The 3 man crew that perished during initial attack of the Twisp River fire drove into a situation of high untenability.

    Wood’s Canyon Road is a relatively steep dead end dirt road. It has 2 prominent hairpin curves in the lower part of the grade. There is (was) a sizable stand of conifers flanking the west side for most of its length. Terrain is far from flat. Etc., etc. Extreme if not critical fire danger for a long time.

    Area Forecast Discussions issued by NWS Spokane Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning indicated that Wednesday would see “…. unstable conditions, promoting the potential for fire growth …. / …. The main concern today (Wednesday) will be hot and unstable conditions as the thermally induced surface pressure trough will begin to migrate east of the Cascades.”.

    How could the crew imagine what would become of their initial attack? Could there have been a defining moment prior to turning up onto Wood’s Canyon Road in which they realized it was too dangerous? Should they have known better? Were they cognizant of the incipient danger?

    Lessons for others to learn! Know when to back down.

    Lone Ranger

  2. Dispatchers on Forests and BLM Use to give Morning and afternoon Forecasts over the Radio from National weather service Don’t they still do that? It was 7 days a week during fire season and with all the fires there would have been many directed at each complex.
    It would be very strange that all units were not given weather predictions at least 2 times or more per day over the Radio. Is any one paying attention out there?

  3. Without question, there will be a great deal of analysis of (and hopefully learning from) this incident in the forthcoming months. It’s appropriate to say that weather is a crucial factor to be considered at wildfires, as one of the three elements that primarily effect wildfire behavior (arguably the most prominent of the 3). In that light however, there are many variables that impact when and where fire crews are inserted in an incident, and this is not merely predicated by forecasted meteorological conditions. In this case Mr. Mass’s concerns may eventually be well founded, but with many facts of this particular case still unknown, it might prove wise to wait for the whole story to come out before arriving at conclusions based on a singular (albeit extremely important) element.


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