As Washington burns, experts work to perfect fire danger forecasts

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SEATTLE -- Firefighters are tackling three blazes in central Washington near Yakima and forecasts show conditions to fight them are going to get worse.

The Pipeline Fire and Left Hand Fire are both between Yakima and Ellensburg. The Kusshi Creek Fire is south near the Yakama Reservation.

The Left Hand Fire has forced six homes to evacuate and hundreds more are on notice.

Top fire scientists at the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab in Montana are working to improve fire forecasting, so conditions can be predicted up to a week in advance.

On Friday, most of central Washington shows orange, which means "very high" fire weather potential. But by Saturday, the central region around Yakima turns red to "severe." That's the worst rating for fire weather.

Forecasting models show "very high" fire danger for Friday, July 26, in central Washington.

Forecasting models show "severe" fire danger for Saturday, July 27, in central Washington.







What it means is if you're living in the red zone, you need to be in the "get set" mindset. The evacuation mindset ranks: Ready, get set and go. New forecasting models can help people in the area be more prepared for the unpredictable nature of fire.

"As the conditions get progressively worse, the predictability of those events goes down and the risk to firefighters and communities goes up because conditions can change really quickly," said Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service.

Jolly is working to improve a fire danger system that's four decades old. To him, the Forest Service can do a lot better than Smokey the Bear.

Using advanced weather forecasting models, he's developing a system that can give fire weather conditions seven days in advance. Of course, the accuracy of those models is most reliable up to three to four days.

The models also track wind conditions, which show a stark difference between Friday and Saturday for the central and eastern part of the state.

Wind models for Friday, July 26, in Washington.

Wind models for Saturday, July 27, in Washington.







Jolly said about 75 percent of all firefighter entrapments and fatalities happen when conditions reach a perfect storm of hottest, driest and windiest days. Those conditions are only present 3 percent of the time, he said.

Experts say the expectation of what firefighters are doing on those days should be curbed, keeping in mind safety is a top priority.

"We're not going to stop this fire at this time in this location, but how can we take care of the things that are most important to us and then engage the fire under conditions where we are likely to be successful?" USFS fire economist Dave Calkin said. "That's kind of an organizing theme around the work we've been doing."

The fire forecasting models are already being used by firefighters in the field. As the program develops, the public should be able to access fire forecasting models right from a cell phone.

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