Fire duty: NOAA forecasters provide critical support to firefighters

High Park Fire in Colorado.

Smoke obscures the horizon as the High Park Fire in Colorado continues to burn acres of forest, June 2012.

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Wildfire has consumed nearly 775,000 acres of forest this summer in the West, and dangerous fire conditions remain for Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. For those fighting the fire, weather information is vital: Low humidity, scorching temperatures and strong winds create extreme fire danger and the potential for rapid spreading.

Fortunately for communities and businesses on the front line, NOAA Incident Meteorologists (IMETs) are on duty. These specialized meteorologists provide lifesaving, up-to-the-minute weather information and timely forecasts to firefighters and the public in range of the immediate fire area.

“Incident meteorologists give immediate, face-to-face support when fire fighters are on the line protecting lives and property,” said Nezette Rydell, Meteorologist in Charge of NOAA’s National Weather Service Denver/Boulder Weather Forecast Office. “IMETs are there to provide weather expertise in real time, to answer questions as they come up, without delay.”

Every year, about 100,000 wildland fires occur in the United States, causing severe destruction and loss of life. To help prevent and control these potentially deadly and economically devastating events, NOAA employs a team of specially trained IMETs who understand weather and the conditions favorable to sparking wildfires. Their weather forecasts help ensure the safety of fire crews and allow responders to plan operations with the erratic nature of weather in mind.

Example of a pyrocumulus cloud.

Example of a pyrocumulus cloud.

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What factors into wildfire?

In addition to weather, fuel type and topography are the most significant factors that influence the severity and behavior of wildfires. Fire intensity and rate of spread are directly related to meteorological parameters such as temperature, humidity and wind speed. Long-term drought conditions contribute to the number and intensity of wildfires in a given year.

However, wildfires can also create their own weather. Pyrocumulus clouds – large clouds fed by a large fire – can form over top of a fire from the intense heat. These clouds usually produce little or no helpful precipitation, but they do produce strong and gusty winds that can push fires to spread and threaten firefighter safety.

Smoke plume.

A smoke plume rises from the High Park Fire in Colorado, June 2012.

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Forecasting fire

Before fires even start, forecasters from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Okla., issue daily fire weather outlooks that span eight days. These outlooks help fire officials manage their firefighting resources at a strategic level. SPC forecast maps identify areas throughout the county where hot temperatures, low humidity and high winds combine with dry fuels to create critical large-scale fire weather conditions.

SPC fire weather forecasts are based on collaboration with meteorologists at local weather forecast offices in each of NOAA’s National Weather Service regions. Meteorologists in the local offices use SPC fire weather outlooks for guidance as they predict weather and issue fire weather watches and “red flag” warnings in their forecast area.

IMETs then, and now

Since 1914, NOAA National Weather Service IMETs have worked closely with fire behavior analysts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, and other federal, state and local fire control agencies who are responsible for suppressing fires. There are 79 highly trained IMETs available to deploy at a moment’s notice to assist with on-the-scene wildfire response.

In cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other partner agencies, NOAA is expanding the IMET program to “All-Hazards” — now IMETs will provide onsite support during public safety threats ranging from hazardous materials spills to earthquake recovery.

Learn more about NOAA’s IMETs: Watch this video and visit the National Interagency Fire Center’s website.

Posted June 26, 2012 NOAA logo.