Here’s a specialized slice of meteorology you probably don’t think about.
When wildfires blaze thousands of acres, NOAA’s National Weather Service deploys Incident Meteorologists (IMETS) to the fire-lines. These specially trained meteorologists provide critical forecasts for weather conditions that will determine fire behavior in wildfire zones.
IMETS provide critical fire-weather information and forecasts. NOAA describes the gig.
IMETs keep firefighters safe by interpreting weather information, assessing its effect on the fire and communicating it to fire crews. Once on-site, IMETs become key members of the incident command teams and provide continuous meteorological support for the duration of the incident.
— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) November 12, 2018
IMETS may get the call to deploy at a moments notice. Many have a go-bag at the ready.
IMETs are located in numerous NWS offices across the country. Once a large wildfire has started, an IMET is contacted and given orders to travel to the site of the fire as quickly as possible. Ken Simosko, an IMET with the NWS Bismarck Weather Forecast Office (WFO), has worked five fire incidents. “You have to be ready at a moment’s notice. I have my bag ready to go so that when I get the call, I can spend my time getting spun up on the history of the fire, its current and future situation. Usually an IMET is on scene within 24 hours to 48 hours of the initial call. This depends on the mode of travel [car or plane] and how far the IMET is from the wildland fire.”
At the fire site, the IMETs check in at the incident command center. This is usually located relatively near the active wildfire and is either part of a temporary tent or trailer camp that is set up for those who are working the event. “Depending on the size of the fire there can be hundreds of folks involved. Some people bring tents to sleep in. I usually bring a blow-up mattress and sleep in the back of my truck. The command center supplies food and brings in shower and bathroom facilities on a flatbed for all of us who are working the event,” says Simosko.
Each IMET deployment lasts around two weeks, or until the wildfire is considered contained. If a fire lasts more than two weeks, another IMET will be sent to relieve the one who has just completed their two weeks on-site. There is very little “down time” when working a wildfire.
A day in the life
IMETS put in long days at the fire command center. They give detailed weather briefings on wind, humidity, temperature, and lightning potential to fire command crews. Critical decisions on where to put fire crews depend on the IMET forecast.
Jason Clapp, an IMET with the Sacramento, California WFO who has worked 18 fire incidents, notes that, “morning comes early. You have to have time to check the weather situation and verify the forecast is still on track before the morning briefing.” The day officially starts with this briefing for the full camp at 6 AM. From that point until lunch time an IMET’s time is filled with keeping an eye on the forecast and briefing individual groups who are handling different aspects of the fire. “Sometimes I’ll be briefing the pilots who are fighting the fire by air so after the main briefing I’ll take a short ride to the airfield. Then I might come back and be asked to brief a state or county official who is going to be doing media interviews to get the latest information out to the public. You never know who you’re going to need to brief so you have to be flexible,” says Simosko.
As the day goes on, an IMET’s duties shift a bit more heavily towards forecasting, especially if there is a chance of thunderstorms. In the areas where large wildfires tend to occur, thunderstorms don’t necessarily bring much rain, but they do bring plenty of lightning. “If thunderstorms are in the forecast, you’re tied to your workstation, watching the storms on radar once they have started, and updating the forecast as needed” says Clapp. The safety of the crews working the fire is paramount so when lightning is in the area they are pulled back to a safe location. Wind is another dangerous element of thunderstorms. Strong gusts can cause the fire to suddenly shift, which can injure the firefighters or cut off their way back to safety.
Simosko noted that forecasting for a wildfire incident is very different from the general weather forecasts he issues in the office. “[I’m] focusing on a much smaller area and a shorter time period. Because the forecasts are being used within minutes to hours, I get immediate feedback on how I did,” says Simosko. Both Simosko and Clapp appreciate the immediate feedback. It challenges them both to continually strive to make the best forecast possible.
Thank you to the thousands of firefighters, law enforcement officials and first-responders working around the clock to protect lives and property. #WoolseyFire
— Mayor Eric Garcetti (@MayorOfLA) November 11, 2018
The next time you see those flames and fire crews on the front lines, think of the Incident Meteorologist who issued the forecast to help direct fire crews and resources.