DRY WESTERN STATES BECOMING TINDER BOXES FOR WILD FIRES
July 26, 2000 Wildfires have burned nearly three million acres nationwide so far this year, the largest acreage burned in the country since 1996, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The total number of wildfires to date this year is near 56,000. (Click image for larger view.)
These wildfires are an indication the western portions of the United States are experiencing the same problems encountered in the drought stricken Southeast. While state agencies and residents in Florida enjoy a temporary reprieve thanks to recent rains, residents of eight western states are seeing their land go up in smoke at an increasing rate. Florida continues to experience extreme drought conditions.
As of July 25, NOAA's National Weather Service had at least 16 Incident Meteorologists (IMETs) on site or en-route to assist other federal agencies with an increasing number of wild fires, many started by lightning from dry thunderstorms. The Weather Service has assigned these special weather forecasters to work with land management agencies and firefighters to battle against blazes in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington. So far this year, the National Weather Service has dispatched IMETS to work the equivalent of 550 days on wildfires.
Much attention has been given to the Bircher/Mesa Verde National Park, Colo., fire as flames spread in and around ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings and artifacts. The fire, apparently started by a July 20 lightning strike, had consumed more than 22,000 acres of forest by July 24. The force of almost 500 firefighters on the Bircher fire can't expect conditions to improve any time soon as the weather forecast calls for continued dry conditions for the next few days.
Weather and fire conditions aren't expected to get any better for the other seven states either. Weather Service Forecast offices in the impacted areas are calling for continued dry conditions with low relative humidity and warm temperatures. Land management agencies are reporting very dry fuels in forested states. Very high to extreme fire danger indices were reported in all of the western states, Alabama and Texas, according to the latest Incident Management Situation Report from the Fire Center. The humidity in those areas is forecast to remain low with winds expected to be at 10-20 miles per hour.
National Weather Service meteorologists play a vital role in support of efforts to control wildfires that rage across the United States each year. In addition to routine, daily fire weather forecasts, National Weather Service offices issue site-specific, timely forecasts of weather conditions that can be hazardous to crews fighting the fires. The offices also provide specific meteorological information to the agency's special cadre of IMETs, who may be deployed to a specific fire's location. At the fire scene, IMETs give frequent briefings to the fire management team which relies on the information to place firefighting crews and how to fight the fire.
The IMETs are specially trained in mesoscale and microscale meteorology and employ a variety of special tools to prepare the forecasts that contribute to the safety of all personnel involved in management of the fires. Since 1914, National Weather Service forecasters have worked closely with fire control specialists from a variety of federal agencies tasked with suppressing fires. The IMETs use laptop computers to access information from local forecast offices and use other special equipment in preparing critical information for wildfire suppression. The main tool used by IMETs is the 250-pound Advanced Technology Meteorological Unit (ATMU), which enables forecasters to operate at the fire command centers and provide close meteorological support to suppression efforts.
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