Meteorologists Crunch Weather Data For Critical Fire Forecasts

Jun 28, 2021, 5:10 PM | Updated: 8:33 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Due to the extreme drought, the fire danger in Utah this season has been explosive.

Changing weather conditions can impact fires almost immediately, so a team of meteorologists in Salt Lake City tracks the weather data critical for wildfires in order to create forecasts for firefighters. 

Meteorologists with the Great Basin Predictive Center create forecasts to help firefighters plan their days and the weeks ahead. It’s a critical piece in the firefighting effort. 

Basil Newmerzhycky and other meteorologists at Great Basin Predictive Services look at the weather data, as it relates to fire danger, to come up with fire potential forecasts for the next few days, and the next few. 

“We’re looking at all the weather data, but instead of putting together a forecast for today to be partly sunny and highs near 80, we’re calling for maybe a 20% probability of large fires today, maybe increasing to 50% probability of large fires six days from now,” said Newmerzhycky. 

They study how the weather affects the fuels in the forest. Is the weather adding moisture to the grasses and trees, or drying them out? 

“Not asking yourself, ‘How is this going to affect people, but how is it going to affect the grasses that are growing on this meadow on the south-facing aspect? How is it going to affect the downed timber up on the Uinta Wasatch Cache National Forest?’” said Newmerzhycky. 

The meteorologists then compare that data with historical data on the starts and growth of large fires to come up with a large fire potential forecast for the next seven days. 

“We’ve actually had a nice cool respite the last couple of days, and that’s brought the fuel moisture up a little bit, which is good news for us,” said Newmerzhycky. 

Monsoonal moisture, largely absent in recent summers, has returned to southern Utah, he said. 

Thursday’s rainstorm helped reduce the extreme fire risk for about four to seven days.

Just a little bit cooler and moister air can make a big difference with fire danger, said the meteorologist. 

“It’s amazing what a difference when you have 100° temperatures and 8% humidity, versus 85° temperatures and 20% humidity,” he said. 

Fuel moisture levels can rebound quickly, said Newmerzhycky, but the extreme danger will always be on our doorstep this summer. 

“It is very easy to dry out and get critical again. In the northern half of the state, especially, you don’t moisten up too much at all. We’re only going to get worse from here as we go into July and August,” he said.

Their long-range models show a return of the dry and breezy weather, which means Utahns will need to focus on fire sense all summer long. 

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Meteorologists Crunch Weather Data For Critical Fire Forecasts