Weather Helps Predict Wildfire Behavior

Steve Brown scowled at the digital map on his computer screen, particularly the clusters of red dots showing lightning storms.


RENO, Nev. (AP) -- Steve Brown scowled at the digital map on his computer screen, particularly the clusters of red dots showing lightning storms.

``Those are all positive strikes. Positive strikes are the ones that go from the cloud to the ground,'' he said.

``There's a lot of positive strikes,'' Sandy Gregory said, looking over Brown's shoulder. ``This is a bad afternoon.''

Brown and Gregory are two foot soldiers in the war on wildfires.

``Steve is looking at the forecast. I look at the fuel conditions. We look at that every single day,'' Gregory said. ``Steve looks at the fire danger aspect and I do the fire behavior aspect of it.''

Nevada became the first state to study fuel moisture, starting with a 1980 research project. The meteorologists were added early last year and now operate across the nation, except in the East and Alaska.

``My job is basically one to keep the managers informed around the state of what's going on and what they can expect,'' said Brown, who carries the title fire weather program manager and is also a former meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Reno.

Gregory, a fuels management specialist, monitors the moisture level in what fuels fires - from grass to towering pines - in 67 locations around the state. When Brown detects the likelihood of lightning, Gregory can forecast a fire's behavior based on available fuel.

In a year in which Nevada and about half of the other contiguous states are in moderate to extreme drought, Gregory said the condition of vegetation is dire, from light fuels like cheat grass to heavy timber.

``We've developed the mathematics to go with it so we can actually figure the rate of spread, fireline intensity and the heat output for firefighter safety,'' Gregory said. ``We actually produce a fire behavior forecast on a daily basis.''

Both work out of the Reno office of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Along with informing fire commanders in the field, the information they analyze goes to team leaders headed for wildfires so they know what to expect when they arrive on the fire line. The data are posted on the BLM's Web site.

``There's so much information that we're providing them when they walk into this state now,'' Brown said. ``I think we're probably ahead of most states.''

``We brief everybody in the world,'' he said. ``I've done five briefings today and those are the formal ones. The other ones, you just get a call on the phone from the district office or something. It's pretty constant.''

Pat Murphy, incident commander of the firefighting team that bears his name, said it's a valuable and potentially lifesaving science because crews go into areas in which they're not familiar with the fuels or the weather.

``We have to be sure we don't put someone out there in harm's way,'' he said.

Murphy recalled a Utah fire that was rapidly closing in on a wildlife refuge. The decision was made to set a huge backfire, until a meteorologist said monsoonal rain appeared to be approaching.

The crews held off on setting the fire and the rains came.

``We probably saved 10,000 acres we would have had to burn,'' he said.

Brown said his work goes hand-in-hand with the spot forecasts produced by his old employer, the National Weather Service.

``It's kind of a perfect marriage, really,'' he said. ``What we're doing is giving more information now than was provided before. The weather service has many different programs they have to look at, and they can't spend all the time that I do in getting out the information. It's the only program that I have to worry about.''

Brown said he consults daily with weather service meteorologists and fellow BLM forecasters to be sure all are in agreement with their outlooks, especially when they cover a broad area.

``I've never seen a meteorologist who didn't want more data, and I think we're getting to the point where we're getting a lot more,'' he said.

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