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Weather prediction is essential to firefighting effort

January 10, 2020 — With more than a hundred wildfires burning across Australia, the Aussie government reached out to the United States for assistance, and NOAA jumped into action. A team of NOAA National Weather Service Incident Meteorologists (IMETs) have deployed Down Under to help with the firefighting effort.

Weather plays a significant role in how easily a wildfire may start, how fast it spreads, where the fire and smoke will move, and how dangerous it can become. Once a fire has ignited, weather, terrain and fuels will determine its course. Accurate weather forecasts provide critical information needed to contain wildfires and to keep firefighters on the front lines safe.

NOAA’s highly trained Incident Meteorologists are working alongside their Australian counterparts to provide specialized weather forecasts that support firefighting decisions. Fire managers use these forecasts to plan how best to suppress the fires and to keep the battalions safe from sudden wind shifts. IMETs spend long days interpreting weather information, assessing its effect on the fire and briefing fire crews and decision makers. IMETs are specially trained in fire weather prediction and providing decision support to fire managers.

Forecasting for a wildfire is different from general weather forecasting, and requires unique knowledge and skills. For example, fires can create their own weather such as firestorms that produce dry lightning or send embers miles away from the storm. And a fire whirl, a swirling column of fire, is extremely hot and can be transient, making them very dangerous. Fire forecasters use a wide range of tools to get the job done. They closely monitor real-time observations of the atmosphere, such as wind, temperature and humidity, and they use advanced forecast models to predict weather parameters that will exacerbate current fires or create new starts.

 
2019 was the warmest and driest year on record for Australia.
Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
     
IMET Joe Goudsward (NWS Little Rock, AR) points out potential hazardous weather on a gridded forecast display to an Australian forecaster with IMET Mark Pellerito (NWS Binghamton, NY). Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Sydney, January 2020. Credit: NOAA
IMET Joe Goudsward (NWS Little Rock, AR) points out potential hazardous weather on a gridded forecast display. IMET Mark Pellerito (NWS Binghamton, NY) on right. Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Sydney, January 2020. Credit: NOAA


NOAA IMETs deployed to Australia in November and December and spent the holidays working at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. In total, nine IMETs will deploy to Australia through March 2020 for six weeks at a time. The United States and Australia signed a partnership agreement for wildfire assistance between the two countries in 2006. In almost every year since, the countries have assisted each other to combat a number of devastating wildfires.

Millions of acres have burned since the fires began in September, destroying 2,000 homes and killing at least 26 people and approximately one billion animals. Prolonged drought in Australia combined with extreme heat has created prime conditions for wildfires to spread this year. February is the traditional peak of wildfire season in Australia, and fire activity is expected to continue for several months.

Follow the IMETs @NWS_IMETS_OPS or @NWS

SCIENCE FAST FACT: Adapting to a new forecast environment

Forecasting in Australia, compared to North America, has its challenges. When forecasting south of the equator one must remember the trade winds blow from the southeast, the opposite direction than in North America and cold air comes from the south not the north as in the U.S.  And in Australia they use the metric system and the Celsius scale. Another task that takes getting used to for a forecaster is the difference in time zones between local (in Australia), UTC (the scientific universal time that meteorological data is time stamped with) and their home time zone, where they normally work.

 

On right, IMET Mark Petterito (NWS Binghamton, NY) develops one of 20 spot weather forecasts requested by firefighters on this day. He works alongside meteorologists at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology regional office in Sydney. January 2020 Credit: NOAA
Left to right, IMET Carl Cerniglia (NWS Tucson, AZ) and IMET Mark Petterito (NWS Binghamton, NY) develop many of the 20 spot weather forecasts requested by firefighters on this day. They work alongside meteorologists at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology regional office in Sydney. January 2020 Credit: NOAA

 

Several IMETs deployed to Australia to help with fire weather forecasting. From left to right: Mark Struthwolf (NWS Salt Lake City, UT), Mark Pellerito (NWS Binghamton, NY), Dr. Andrew Johnson (CEO and Director of Meteorology at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology), Jane Golding (Bureau of Meteorology), in red shirt Joe Goudsward (NWS Little Rock, AR), and Rob Taggart (Bureau of Meteorology). Location: Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Sydney. December 2019. Credit: NOAA
Several IMETs deployed to Australia to help with fire weather forecasting. From left to right: Mark Struthwolf (NWS Salt Lake City, UT), Mark Pellerito (NWS Binghamton, NY), Dr. Andrew Johnson (CEO and Director of Meteorology at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology), Jane Golding (Bureau of Meteorology), in red shirt Joe Goudsward (NWS Little Rock, AR), and Rob Taggart (Bureau of Meteorology). Location: Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Sydney. December 2019. Credit: NOAA