Forecasting fire

NOAA meteorologists help fight wildfires

Forest fire.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

About 100,000 wildfires occur in the United States each year, destroying lives, structures and tens of thousands of acres. The secondary effects of wildfires include erosion, landslides, introduction of invasive species, and changes in water quality.

Since 1914, NOAA’s National Weather Service meteorologists have worked closely with fire behavior experts from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management; and other federal, state, and local fire control agencies that are responsible for suppressing fires.  

Watchful Eye

Incident Meteorologists and Fire Behavior Analysts observing a firing operation.

Incident Meteorologists and Fire Behavior Analysts observing a firing operation.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

Before fires even start, forecasters from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., issue daily fire weather outlooks up to eight days in advance, helping Forest Service and other fire officials manage their resources at a strategic level. Storm Prediction Center forecast maps show areas throughout the United States where hot temperatures, low humidity, and high winds combined with dry fuels will create critical large-scale fire weather conditions.

NOAA meteorologists in all 122 National Weather Service forecast offices also play a key role in supporting local efforts to control wildfires. Specifically, they use the Storm Prediction Center’s fire weather outlooks for guidance as they issue local fire weather forecasts or fire weather-related alerts online or by NOAA Weather Radio.

The two most common fire warning products are:

On the Fire Line

Assisting in the battle against these blazes, NOAA also employs a team of specially-trained meteorologists to serve in wildfire suppression efforts. These incident meteorologists help keep the fire crews safe and enable responders to plan operations taking into account one of the most variable aspects of the incident — the weather.

Pyrocumulus clouds.

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Wildfires create their own unique weather and it is the job of the IMETs to follow and predict this weather. Pyrocumulus clouds — large clouds fed by a large fire — can form over top of a fire due to the intense heat. These clouds usually produce little or no precipitation, but produce strong and gusty winds that can alter how the fire spreads and endanger firefighters, as well as the general public.

The incident meteorologists, or IMETs, are specially trained and certified to provide weather support at a fire location. IMETs interpret weather information, assess its affect on the fire, and assist the fire agencies in developing strategies to best fight the fires, while keeping firefighters safe. Once onsite, IMETs become key members of the incident command teams and provide continuous meteorological support for the duration of the incident.

IMETs on location.

Each IMET uses a portable satellite communications and laptop computer to access weather information.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

IMETs can set up “mini-Weather Forecast Offices” at any site across the nation — providing weather forecasts that are vital to planning and executing wildfire suppression strategies and ensuring fire crew safety. IMETs also provide fire weather forecasts and warnings to local, state, and federal fire agencies. Although wildfires are an ongoing disaster that affects the United States every year, IMETs and fire crews work together to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible.

As we increasingly live, work, and play in wildfire-prone areas, knowledge of fire weather conditions and warnings will be crucial in saving lives and property. NOAA’s forecasts, warnings, and on-site incident reports will continue to be key in preventing and fighting wildfires as well as saving lives and preserving natural resources. NOAA logo.