Study helps predict wildfires

Study helps predict wildfires

25 January 2011

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USA — When the humidity plunges, temperatures soar and those legendary Panhandle winds pick up, brace for wildfires.

That’s according to a National Weather Service study recently made public that found weather conditions have been the same when the state’s largest and deadliest wildfires have sparked.

Add in spring drought conditions – like those expected once this winter ends – and the threat heightens, officials said.

The weather service study is expected to help provide advance warning to regional fire departments before a potentially devastating wildfire.

Known by the Texas Forest Service as “firestorms,” those fires – or groups of them – are massive, destructive and almost impossible to control.

In just five years, the Forest Service charted 10 firestorms, including a deadly 2006 blaze that burned 1.1 million acres, mostly in Hutchinson County. In all, those firestorms destroyed 2.5 million acres and 1,065 structures and killed 22 people, the Forest Service reports.

“It’s just a large-scale weather pattern that supports violent outbreaks of wildfire across the southern Plains,” said Todd Lindley, a meteorologist based in Lubbock.

The study analyzed 2005 and 2006 wildfire outbreaks across Texas, eastern New Mexico and Oklahoma. Texas Forest Service officials said they’ll be able to pinpoint several days in advance when wildfires are likely in the South Plains, eastern New Mexico, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Oklahoma and the Texas Hill Country.

Each of the fires the weather service studied were sparked under conditions of low humidity, abnormally high temperatures, dry air masses and intense winds, Lindley said.

“We knew if we studied these events we could come up with a recognizable pattern and be able to predict these events in the future,” Lindley said. “We’ve had some stunning success.”

Authorities used the study to predict an April 2009 fire that threatened the city of Wheeler, burned almost 15,000 acres and damaged or destroyed about 30 buildings as it burned through Wheeler County.

While officials didn’t know where the fire would start, Wheeler County Emergency Management Coordinator Ken Daughtry said departments across the region were put on high alert.

Daughtry said the advanced warning helped firefighters mobilize and quickly put a game plan into action so the damage was minimized and the city spared.

“We knew if something broke out it would be bad,” Daughtry said.

The study doesn’t help predict when or where a fire’s going to start, so property owners are asked to be alert and use caution during days that have high fire dangers, said Tom Spencer, head of the Texas Forest Service’s predictive service division.

“You don’t know when these things will occur,” he said. “You just know eventually at some point in time it will occur. But knowing what to look for is the main thing.”

Spencer said the Forest Service has launched an awareness campaign designed to educate the public about what to do should the necessary weather conditions develop in their area.

The Forest Service is responsible for warning fire departments when conditions are ripe for a wildfire.

“We want them, local government officials and the general public to be aware of the severity of this,” Spencer said.

Daughtry said he expects the study will have implications on how the 44 fire departments in his region respond to fires.

“That will get everybody sitting on go,” he said, “so they know if something happens, it’s showtime.”

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