No amount of expertise can predict human-caused wildfires like the ones that recently ravaged Southern California, but scientists are getting better at forecasting when nature might strike.
It's now possible to move fire crews and equipment into areas poised for disaster thanks to a coordinated effort that studies such conditions as weather, drought and vegetation.
"They're basically looking for that monster out there," Rick Ochoa said. "If we can anticipate where the fire's going to be, we can have fire crews in place."
Ochoa said that in August 2001, with blue skies covering Washington and Oregon, forecasters decided to send everything possible to those two states.
"By Aug. 12, there were 200-plus large fires and 18 large (fire) complexes," he said. "It was a tragedy, but we probably saved millions of dollars through our readiness."
Ochoa, fire weather program manager for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, was among more than 20 speakers at an annual workshop on weather prediction in the West.
The decision whether to deploy crews and equipment analyzes fuel dryness, wind forecasts, humidity and the likelihood of lightning, Ochoa said .
In the case of the "monster" in Southern California, he said only the risk of lightning was missing as dry Santa Ana winds raked a region dotted by dried-out trees, killed by a bark beetle infestation.
Ochoa and other speakers questioned how much of an effect the prolonged Western drought has had this fire season.
Drought was a factor in the California blazes that burned more than 740,00 acres, but he pointed to a graphic that forecast a fairly benign summer for wildfires in much of Nevada and Utah. Both states, which are in extreme drought conditions, had moderate fire seasons.
"Just because we're in a drought doesn't mean we're going to have a serious fire season," Ochoa said.
Beth Hall, an assistant research scientist at the Desert Research Institute who has tracked the frequency and extent of fires during droughts using different humidity indicators, said short-term drought seems to have a greater effect than long-term conditions.
Brian Olsen of the University of Utah discussed a network that compiles weather data to give fire bosses an instant glance of conditions. Tested last year, Real-time Observation Monitor and Analysis Network is scheduled to be operational next season.
The goal of the ongoing research, Ochoa said, is to "jump on the fire when it's small and keep the losses down; to maximize public and firefighter safety, reduce loss and lower costs."
Presentations at the annual conference held Thursday at the Desert Research Institute included drought, snow and severe weather besides analyzing fire conditions.
Asked about reports that a fire sighted by a helicopter pilot in San Diego County was not attacked immediately because air tankers and helicopters were grounded at dusk, Ochoa said there would be investigations into the use of aircraft and how long pilots should work before resting. The small fire erupted into the Cedar blaze and burned 280,278 acres.
"At dusk, power lines are a real concern to helicopters," he said. "We've got to be careful about the safety of our pilots and our crews."
On the Net:
Desert Research Institute: http://www.dri.edu
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov
University of Utah Dept. or Meteorology: http://www.met.utah.edu