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Dry weather fuels record wildfires in U.S.
Wildfires have scorched nearly 3.5 million acres of the United States so far this year, the largest amount of land burned in the country since 1988. And weather once again has played a leading role, determining speed, direction and intensity of the wildfires.
Worse yet, forecasters don't see an end to the severe drought conditions plaguing the western United States.
"Weather is everything," said Michelle Barret of the National Interagency Fire Center. "We're seeing the effects of La Niña, it's very dry and hot. Typically, by this time in the Southwest, they would be getting monsoon rains. As a result (of the dry weather), they're getting new fire starts down there.
"Fire season should be about over, and it's not."
Barret explained the glut of fires in one seven-letter word: drought. "Drought is the whole reason for the fire season we're having," she said. "And the dry thunderstorms we're getting contain very little moisture, accompanied by a lot of dry lightning."
Dry lightning has ignited most of the fires currently burning across the western United States.
Warmer than normal temperatures have dried out vegetation. Plants and trees are dying, becoming tinderboxes for fires, said Barret.
Low humidity has also aided the wildfires. "The lower the humidity, the less moisture there is in any part of the fuel. That causes fire to ignite quicker, burn hotter and spread faster," said Barret.
The only sure remedy to wildfires is rain, but rain is nowhere to be found in current forecasts. "We're anticipating that fires in some large timber stands won't be out until the first snowfall," said Barret.
Weather and fuel dictate the behavior of fires, putting meteorologists from the National Weather Service in the hot seat along with fire crews.
Since 1914, NWS forecasters have worked closely with fire control specialists from various federal land agencies charged with suppressing fires. Weather forecasts and fire danger alerts are issued at least twice a day during the summer fire season. Special forecasts are prepared as conditions dictate.
So-called "incident meteorologists" are one of the most important resources provided by the NWS for fire suppression. IMETs are the Weather Service equivalent of Forest Service smoke-jumpers a force of 40 specially trained weather forecasters invaluable to the fire-fighting team.
So far this year, the NWS has deployed more than 16 IMETs to assist other federal agencies with wildfires.
IMETs rely on Advanced Technology Meteorological Units, portable data stores of weather events and forecasting tools. They can be set up near the fire line, providing fire managers with crucial information to help them decide where to move fire crews.
Back in regional NWS offices, forecasters issue site-specific forecasts to keep crews on the fire line out of harm's way. Dry cold fronts can change the direction and speed of the wind. Dry thunderstorms cause "downbursts", erratic wind conditions and dangerous lightning. Marine-related weather affects wind, humidity and temperatures near fires in coastal areas.
Firefighters throughout the West are digging in for another stretch of hot, dry weather coupled with dry thunderstorms and windy conditions. Seven large fires were contained Monday in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, but three new blazes were reported in Arizona, Montana and Wyoming.
Several small fires sparked by dry lightning were reported in western Montana and northeastern Idaho. For fire crews and the NWS, the heat is on.
Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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