Forecasting fires takes specialists, old and new technology


LOLO, Mont. - When wildfires demand action, incident meteorologists are called in to protect firefighters. Incident Meteorologists, or IMETs are highly trained forecasters employed by the National Weather Service.

When a fire becomes a high priority, meaning at Type 1 or Type 2 crew is assigned, IMETs are called in. They are experts in weather on the small scale.

In the rugged terrain found in western Montana, the weather can affect fire behavior much differently in a valley than on a ridge. Fire can behave differently depending which side of a canyon it's on. These challenges can compromise the safety of firefighters as well as making the blaze difficult to stop without knowing the weather on a hyperlocal scale.

At the incident command post in Lolo, the IMET for the Lolo Creek Complex is Patrick Gilchrist. He began his career in Missoula at the local National Weather Service Forecast Office before joining the IMET program.

When NBC Montana visited the command post, Gilchrist was looking at computer model wind forecasts for the next few days. He's also keeping track of conditions on the ground in near real time using a variety of technology. One of the most important tools he has are the Remote Automated Weather Stations, commonly called RAWS.

The RAWS program is based out of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID. Once RAWS are ordered, a crew of technicians can deploy them almost anywhere, using ATVs to enter rugged terrain. The Lolo Creek Complex has three RAWS units, each placed in a different terrain environment to provide accurate conditions.

In addition to RAWS, firefighters carry a Belt Weather Kit as part of their gear. When they have the time, they take observations using the weather kit such as wind speed, wind direction, and humidity. Compared to the high-tech RAWS, the instruments in the kit are obsolete. Limited resources and the need for timely updates mean any information is better than none.

By keeping track of the weather, fire crews are kept safe and the fire can be fought in a smart, efficient way.

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