Meteorologists Aid Wildfire Fight by Keeping Crews Informed

By JAYATI RAMAKRISHNAN, East Oregonian | August 21, 2018

As they sit at their screens in a small office outside Pendleton, a group of meteorologists can already tell what the rest of the population is soon going to find out the hard way: it’s another smoky day in Oregon.

Dan Slagle looks at the high-resolution rapid-refresh smoke map on his screen and laughs.

“It’s not going anywhere,” he said.

While those on the ground fighting fires are most associated with stopping the blaze, local meteorologists from the National Weather Service are busy behind the scenes, communicating with firefighters and emergency agencies to help them anticipate what’s coming next.

On a recent day, they go over what they’re expecting that day – deteriorating air quality, smoke pouring in from Canada, and a chance of thunderstorms over the mountains.

Later, meteorologist John Peck will advise fire agencies and other groups about the fire weather forecast, in a series of conference calls.

“They’ll go over what they think the concerns are with air quality, how bad they think the smoke’s going to be,” Slagle said.

Meteorologists can also do a forecast report for a specific location, called a “spot forecast,” to provide specific advice about temperature, moisture and wind – that helps firefighters determine which angles to avoid or focus on when attacking a fire.

Though most meteorologists are not at the scene, there are incident meteorologists who will travel to a fire, giving updates and forecasts for the weather conditions at the site.

Slagle is new a journeyman forecaster at the National Weather Service station for the Pendleton region. The region, or County Warning Area, extends north to Ellensburg, Washington, west to The Dalles, south to Bend, and east to Joseph. Their coverage area includes John Day, Walla Walla, Yakima and the Tri-Cities.

Slagle does the TAF – Terminal Aerodome Forecast – for seven airports in the region. Those forecasts are updated at least four times a day. The NWS updates a seven-day forecast twice a day.

They’re also in charge of putting out hydrology (rivers) outlooks and aviation forecasts. If there’s a low cloud ceiling above one of the airports in the region, the NWS can make the call saying flying conditions are unsafe.

The agency is also the only one authorized to put out watches, warnings and advisories, Slagle said.

Meteorologists develop their forecasts primarily using model runs, or computer-generated maps that simulate future atmospheric conditions. There are hundreds of different models, based on various grid spacings and physical factors. Meteorologists compare the model runs, along with satellite images and radar data. The more consensus there is between the different sources of information, the more confidence with which the meteorologist can put out a forecast.

Mike Vescio, the meteorologist-in-charge at the Pendleton station, said technological advances have been crucial in making forecasts.

“When I first started, we only did a five-day forecast, and the model data we had was very limited,” he said. “We printed it out on facsimile charts, and it was very primitive compared to what we have today.”

For most meteorologists, their job changes with the place they live.

“This office is pretty into fire weather,” Slagle said. “Most western offices are.”

Moving with the job, and becoming an expert in different kinds of severe weather, is part of the territory.

Vescio, a 28-year veteran of the industry, said he has lived and worked in the Carolinas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Oregon.

“In North Carolina, we had coastal concerns and did a marine forecast,” he said. “In Fort Worth, Texas, thunderstorms and tornadoes were a big concern.”

A Nebraska native, Slagle grew up knowing he was interested in meteorology, and studied it at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

But upon graduation, he found that getting a job in his field wasn’t so easy.

“It turns out a lot of people got into meteorology after the movie ‘Twister,”’ Slagle joked.

He managed to find work with a private company in Grand Forks, North Dakota, doing a lot of winter forecasts for road companies.

After a few years of trying to get into the National Weather Service, he finally landed an entry-level job in Elko, Nevada, and worked there for three years.

As the industry’s reliance on automation grows, Slagle said jobs have become more competitive, as has keeping up with new technologies.

“People don’t know about us probably as much as they should,” he said. “As smartphones came around, people start to get weather forecasts from their phone. So how do we adapt?”

Some changes have included doing more work with partner agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, and becoming more visible to the public.

“They want us to get away from drawing grids, issuing weather warnings,” Slagle said. “They want us to get into more outreach, social media.”

That has included teaching storm-spotting classes and giving tours, as well as going to career fairs and safety fairs.

Slagle said NWS has also begun to provide support on-site during natural disasters, such as chemical spills or events with large numbers of people, like fairs and concerts. They will be on-site at the Pendleton Round-Up in September.

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