Fire season looks tough

This year's wildfire season started late, but is still expected to be a rough one.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | July 9, 2004



"If we can catch these (fires) while they're small, they'll be less of a risk to the public and the firefighters."

—Rick Ochoa


This year's wildfire season started late, but is still expected to be a rough one, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

Wildfires are currently ravaging Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington. The current wildfires in the southwest are typical, said NIFC spokesperson Nancy Lull, but the midsummer rain the area usually gets hasn't shown up yet.

"We were fortunate that the fire season was delayed in some states for several weeks due to spring rain, but now the seasonal monsoons are late," said Lull. "Arizona and New Mexico are usually out of fire season by now."

Because of severe dry weather across the western United States, the NIFC is concerned with the fire outlook in many regions. "We're watching the Pacific Northwest - Washington and eastern Oregon are particularly dry," said Rick Ochoa, fire weather program manager for the NIFC. "We're also concerned with northern California, northern Idaho, Montana, and also Alaska. It might be easier to say where we don't expect fires."

Ochoa works in the Predictive Services division of the NIFC, a section he says is working to be more proactive with fire management. "We look at weather, fuel conditions, moisture levels, temperature and things like that so we can move our resources to needed areas," explained Ochoa. "We advise fire managers hourly, and we've done a pretty good job so far at predicting fire-prone areas."

The severe drought across many parts of the west is only exacerbating fire conditions. Some regions have been in a drought state for six years now, said Ochoa. Warmer winters and early snow melt-offs contribute to the dry conditions, and with dry conditions come the bugs. More tree-damaging and tree-killing insects are infesting western forests, which creates more fuel for wildfires.

Wildfire prediction is an area many agencies are moving into. The ability to pinpoint fire-prone areas and activate fire responders at the first signs of a new blaze is the key to safety, said Ochoa.

"Our first priority is safety," he said. "If we can catch these (fires) while they're small, they'll be less of a risk to the public and the firefighters."

New technology is making that possible for federal, state, and local fire responders. The Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nevada, is utilizing a new technology from SGI that will help them translate a tremendous amount of data into wildfire forecasts.

DRI currently works with 12 federal, state and local agencies on this new wildfire forecasting and research - all with the aim of improving prediction and response. The agencies include the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the California and Nevada Smoke and Air Committee, and numerous other California and Nevada state agencies. This new technology allows for forecasting to be done from three hours to 72 hours out - letting fire managers from around Nevada and California to look up interactive maps, monitor smoke patterns, temperatures, and much more.

"This model is taking the physics of the atmosphere and allowing us run them in the computer and make predictions," said Dr. Tim Brown, director of DRI's Climate, Ecosystem, and Fire Application program (CEFA).

The new prediction technology will soon be available to partnering agencies online. Brown said DRI expects more organizations to join the program in the coming months, but he's very happy with the coalition they have so far.

"This is a big deal to be able to bring that kind of diversity together on this," said Brown.

This isn't DRI's first foray into wildfire research. Each spring, DRI gathers with western wildfire agencies to discuss regional issues for the upcoming fire season. The group then comes up with a fire season outlook and ties that information to making sure resources are managed correctly. The same is done for the eastern U.S.

Other DRI projects have included studies on drought and precipitation indices, and a study on satellite imaging of fire-prone vegetation conditions.

Prediction is not only important for fire responders, but also for the public. Many wildfire agencies also regularly publish mitigation tips for homeowners. The NIFC advises the following:

- Build with fire-resistant materials, such as brick, aluminum, and stone.

- Clean roof surfaces and gutters of pine needs, leaves, branches, etc., regularly to avoid accumulation of flammable materials.

- A fuel break should be maintained around all structures.

- Propane tanks should be far enough away from buildings for valves to be shut off in case of fire. Keep area clear of flammable vegetation.

In every case, Ochoa and the NIFC said they do all they can to keep up with the wildfires.

"Our goal is to be more proactive," said Ochoa.


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