Warning....Long Post Ahead

By ANGIE WAGNER
Associated Press Writer
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - It's barely dawn when Mike Fitzpatrick
starts his shift with a blur of colorful maps, figures and endless
charts, but already he knows what the day will bring. Lightning
will strike in places he expects. Winds will pick up, moist places
will dry and flames will roar.
But where will the next wildfire hit? Are homes and lives
threatened? Where should crews go to stop it? Could it get out of
control?
This is Predictive Services of the Northwest Interagency
Coordination Center, and Fitzpatrick is in the business of
forecasting wildfires.
It's crucial in the fire-prone West. The decisions made here can
save time, money and lives.
Near Portland International Airport, in a nondescript office
building cluttered with stacks of graphs, coffee mugs and maps
bursting with tacks, Fitzpatrick, head of the six-person prediction
unit, gets the morning's status report. The evening shift ended at
midnight, and Fitzpatrick has to quickly find out how wildfires in
Washington and Oregon behaved overnight.
A fire that began the day before near an Oregon Indian
reservation is still burning. Conditions are ripe for a bad day.
Brush and trees are everywhere, the ground is flat, the wind
steady. The small community of Simnasho is in the fire's path.
Already, 1,500 acres have burned.
"Wind is going to be the deciding factor over there today,"
Fitzpatrick tells the center manager, Gerry Day.
In 1996, 105,000 acres burned in the same area. Fitzpatrick
thinks about the resources tied up fighting fires in California and
Alaska. He hopes he won't need them.
He glances at the huge dry-erase board of fire details and sees
that 130 firefighters and five engines are already on the scene.
Fire managers want four more engines.
"This thing is going to turn into a big fire," Fitzpatrick
says.
It's 7:35 a.m.
---
After the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, government
agencies suggested a change. Instead of reacting to fires after
they begin, what about trying to predict them before they happen?
It was a new way of thinking about wildfires, and it would take
10 more years before Predictive Services was created here, the
first in the country. It wasn't until 2001, after the hiring of two
meteorologists, that the unit really took off. Across the country,
there are now 10 other prediction units like this one.
It's mid-morning when Paul Werth, fire weather program manager
for the Pacific Northwest, hands Fitzpatrick graphs that show
pressure in the atmosphere, rivers of air moving over Washington
and Oregon. Wind, unstable air patterns and dryness are perfect
conditions for large fires.
"It looks like we're going to get into more thunderstorm
activity," Werth tells Fitzpatrick.
While Fitzpatrick worries about the future, it's Werth's job to
study the past. He pores through more than 30 years of records and
predictions from different countries to come up with a scenario for
the Pacific Northwest. He can predict weather patterns 10 days out
by studying temperature, rainfall, humidity, fuel moisture and what
happened in the past.
"Before we had Predictive Services, we only knew what the fire
danger was for the next day," Werth says. "But fire managers
really want to know what it's going to be next week."
The Pacific Northwest gets an average of 4,000 wildfires a year;
most are caused by lightning. This year has been mild so far, with
just more than 36,000 acres burned in Washington and Oregon, but
scientists here know that can change. In Oregon right now, all but
one area of the state - the central section of the Oregon coast -
is at high risk for fire. All of Washington is at risk.
The next cubicle over, meteorologist Terry Marsha goes over his
lightning predictions. The day before, he forecast lightning to
strike in five distinct areas; he was right on four. The lightning
sparked 150 small fires, but they were quickly put out.
He talks with meteorologists from the National Weather Service,
plugs weather data into equations and comes up with a probability
for wildfires starting.
Miles away in the Mount Hood National Forest, a remote area
weather station pumps out data every hour: rainfall, wind speed and
direction. Marsha relies on 200 such stations to help him make his
forecasts.
"The fuel conditions are ready to go," he says. "All you're
waiting for is something to set it off."
It's Marsha's job to find out where that might be.
Almost noon, and the six fires burning in Washington and one in
Oregon are holding. Fitzpatrick predicts the Log Springs fire near
the Warm Springs Indian Reservation will burn another 1,500 acres
today.
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On the other side of the multiagency coordination center, Steve
Dickenson, a former smokejumper and Hotshot crew leader, uses the
intelligence reports to determine which fires should get resources.
When fire managers run out of their own crews, they call here and
ask for help.
Dispatchers can quickly assign crews, engines and air tankers,
but Dickenson has to make the tough decisions on which fires to
make a priority. A wrong decision could leave another area
vulnerable.
A fire manager in Washington wants to know if he can let extra
crews go, but Dickenson, the emergency operations manager, wants
him to keep them for now. The threat is still there.
"In the past, when we have not had Predictive Services,
decisions were made just anecdotally," Dickenson says. "We need
to be making decisions on the best science."
Two days ago, air tankers were positioned in Moses Lake, Wash.,
when Dickenson decided to move them to Redmond, Ore. The same
morning, a fire broke out along the California-Oregon border, and
the tankers put it out.
"I try to pre-position six hours before," he says. "Two hours
is too late. Having that resource there before it's needed is
crucial."
Marsha can forecast lightning strikes within a few hours.
Dickenson reviews the forecast, compares it to fuel conditions in
the area, surveys how many local crews are available and dispatches
resources to the areas most at risk.
"We have not got science to the point where you can tell where
the fire is going to be started," he says. "We just try to put it
as close to the lightning track as (it's) been forecasted."
There are times, Dickenson says, when he moves resources and
nothing happens. But, that doesn't happen often.
The Log Springs fire had extra crews on the scene when it had
burned just 50 acres.
"It can be crazy. I'll be tested very much this August and
September," he says.
Mount Hood National Forest fire manager Reggie Huston says the
wildfire forecast "gives us the ability to do quite a bit of
pre-planning for any type of event that may be coming at us."
Huston says if she knows an area in the forest is at risk, she
can assign more crews and helicopters and alert the public.
When Dickenson's resources are tapped, the National Interagency
Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, takes over, able to dispatch crews
from all over the country.
"It's absolutely key," says Rose Davis, spokeswoman for NIFC,
which has its own prediction unit. "We have to think in front of
fire. We have to use Predictive Services to tell us where the fire
danger increases so we can get our resources moving today."
---
Despite the science of wildfire forecasts, knowing where to put
crews is still a gamble. Will this be the fire that explodes? Are
there enough crews or too many? Are other areas at risk?
"Guessing," Dickenson says, "will always be a part of it
because of weather."
Fitzpatrick and Marsha say some veteran fire managers are
reluctant to use their information, preferring instead to rely on
instinct and experience. Many fire managers just snap a stick in
half to see if an area is dry.
"We're trying to bring more science into a discipline that
doesn't accept science," Marsha says. "It's kind of a macho
profession."
In the future, they hope Predictive Services becomes
standardized across the country, with units, fire managers and
agencies working together to prevent fires.
"It's the beginning of a journey," Marsha says. "That's the
reason for all of it, is to save property and save lives. That's
the ultimate goal."
It's been a good day, and Fitzpatrick is hoping the luck
continues.
"Every day that goes by that we don't get the big fire, the
probability of having a big fire lessens," he says.
But they remember the Biscuit fire of 2002. The fire had been
one of about 500 fires in late July, burning on just a few acres.
It threatened nothing. By the end of August it had burned 500,000
acres, becoming the largest in Oregon history.
"These other fires got the resources. It wasn't a mistake. It's
just the way it worked out. Your forces are overwhelmed,"
Fitzpatrick says.
He makes a final round of calls, checking once more on the seven
fires. The Log Springs fire did what Fitzpatrick expected - gained
1,500 more acres. Eight days after it began, the fire had grown to
13,500 acres. The fires look good, but the threat still looms.
Tomorrow is still to come.
---
EDITOR'S NOTE - Angie Wagner is the AP's Western regional
writer, based in Las Vegas.
---
On the Net:
Northwest Interagency Coordination Center:
http://www.or.blm.gov/nwcc/
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)