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Earth, Wind, and Fire Weather

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It’s time for yet another podcast of… That Weather Show… brought to you by the NOAA Weather Partners.  I’m Angelyn Kolodziej.

You might wonder: what do fire and weather have in common?  Well, weather plays a big part in wildfires – how they start and how they are fought.  Each year, wildfires threaten lives, structures, and vegetation across the country.  NOAA National Weather Service meteorologists play a vital role in the awareness and prevention of fire weather – from long-range outlooks to on-site forecasts.

Scott Curl, a forecast meteorologist at the Norman, Oklahoma Forecast Office, explains.

Weather Forecaster

Scott Curl is a Weather Forecaster for the NOAA National Weather Service Norman, OK Forecast Office.

Curl:  “We look at the weather parameters that can set the stage for a large outbreak of wildfires:  temperature, relative humidity, and winds.  What are those doing?  If those 3 – or a combination of those – become extreme, we could have a situation where can have a lot of wildfires.”

So, how do wildfires begin?  Humans start the majority of them – either by accident or arson.  But weather is also a major culprit.  Lightning is especially dangerous in areas of a thunderstorm where no precipitation is falling.  These strikes are known as dry lightning.  Heavy winds have also been known to blow over power lines – causing sparks.

As early as a week in advance, the NOAA Storm Prediction Center, part of the National Weather Service, provides outlooks for areas where fires are possible.  As the days draw nearer, the National Weather Service may issue fire weather watches and red flag warnings if the high risk remains.

Forecasters use multiple tools to help monitor weather conditions.  Radar can show smoke plumes.  Hourly computer models give high resolution info about the temperature, relative humidity, wind, and precipitation fields.  Infrared satellite can display very high temperature sensitivities, also know as hot spots.  This data helps identify a wildfire’s location even in open country where there are no visible smoke plumes or people.

Wildfire Noble Feb 10, 2006

Wildfire outbreak near Noble, OK

Together, these tools help forecasters monitor changes in weather conditions, such as wind direction.

Curl: “Those kind of things need to be relayed to the firefighters so they can do a good job of putting out the fire and also for protection because at one point they may be on the side of the fire in a relatively safe zone but if a wind shift comes in, that safe zone may not be very safe anymore.”

Weather support is also present at the scene of the fire.  Incident meteorologists use remote equipment to provide on-site weather forecasts tailored to a specific outbreak.  This information helps fire management teams plan effectively and ensures fire crew safety.

The National Weather Service works closely with the fire-weather community, including the U.S Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service, and Fire Departments.

NEXRAD radar displays a smoke plume from Noble, OK wildfire.

NEXRAD radar displays a smoke plume from Noble, OK wildfire.

Although it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the National Weather Service, fire weather awareness and prevention is an important part of the mission.  In fact, forecasters treat wildfires much like they would treat a severe thunderstorm.

Curl: “It is a severe event.  The weather is impacting that.  We also know that people and property are in its way.  Where is it going to go?  How is the weather going to react with the fire?  How are those weather changes going to impact not only the fire but the people we know who are out there trying to put that fire out?”

Thanks for listening to another podcast of… That Weather Show… brought to you by the NOAA Weather Partners.