Fire weather research helpful in battling South Plains wildfires

Fire weather research helpful in battling South Plains wildfires

13 March 2011

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USA — Five years ago this weekend, the South Plains experienced the largest single-day fire in U.S. history when wildfires burned more than a million acres and killed 12 people.

This year’s outbreak on Feb. 27 that burned 284,911 acres and killed one person could have ended like the March 12, 2006, event if not for vital National Weather Service fire weather research, local fire officials said.

“When (the outbreak) did occur five years ago in the

Panhandle on March 12, 2006, the preparedness level was nothing like it had been (on Feb. 27),” said Todd Lindley, the NWS senior meteorologist in Lubbock.

The Feb. 27 preparation and the improved forecasts are testaments of the work Lindley has done, said Justin Weaver, NWS meteorologist-in-charge.

Fire weather research

Lindley, along with assistance from other local meteorologists and various NWS offices, began a research initiative to learn about South Plains fire weather patterns and be able to identify potential wildfire outbreaks days in advance.

Wildfires were a great concern for states west of the Rocky Mountains, he said, and had been low on the South Plains’ radar below tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and dust storms.

After two major fire events happened Dec. 27, 2005, and Jan. 1, 2006, Lindley said that was the first time wildfires became a grave concern to the region. He soon learned he could predict those potential dangers.

“Todd and his colleagues — they didn’t receive any additional funding to do this research. This is something that they did on their own initiative,” Weaver said.

“I think it’s a really good example of a federal agency that is located really close to the people that it serves and does the things that we should be doing.”

Using multiple computer weather forecast models, meteorologists could identify patterns in the wildfire outbreaks, giving them time to alert the public.

A spark plus low relative humidity, powerful winds, high temperatures and dry vegetation or fuels can start a massive wildfire, Lindley said.

The region’s dry grasses are considered one-hour fuels, he said, compared to the 10- or 100-hour fuels of shrubs and trees in the western U.S., which take longer to spread. Last summer’s rains created an abundance of one-hour fuels.

Partnership with Texas Forest Service

Before Lindley’s research, the Texas Forest Service and local fire departments could only respond to fires once they broke out, said Justin Musgraves, a TFS regional fire coordinator.

Now, they have time to mobilize their defenses and stage a strong, united front with personnel and equipment from meteorologists, local fire departments, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

For the past few weeks, NWS and TFS personnel have had daily conference calls and an online discussions to relay information. NWS provides weather forecasts and TFS offers their knowledge of grass fuels and reports weather information from the field so meteorologists can apply it into their forecast models, Musgraves said.

Lindley said they will likely maintain frequent communication until the end of the fire weather season.

Still on alert

The South Plains fire weather season runs from December to mid-April and with the current fuel situation, Lindley said the public needs to take red flag warnings, burn bans and other fire notifications very seriously because fire activity actually peaks in April.

The reason for these recent outbreaks, he said, is based on population increases, urban expansion, less plowed agricultural fields and an ongoing multi-decade drought.

Lindley advised residents to keep the grass around their homes short, cover openings in or under their house where embers can enter and keep vehicles out of tall grasses.

Brad Smith, a TFS fire analyst, believed Lindley’s work and the NWS-TFS partnership would continue to grow and improve fire weather predictions in the future.

“(NWS has) really heightened awareness of fire weather,” he said. “That helps us do our job because it’s all about the impact on the people.”

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