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A 'science team' takes new approach to long-term wildfire forecasting

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On a recent Tuesday morning, LaWen Hollingsworth and Brian Anderson prepared for their latest, and probably last, briefing on the Lolo Peak fire. Their workspace was filled with laptops, chairs and plastic folding tables. Huge printouts of fire maps and graphs papered the walls. One listed the probabilities of various fire season-ending event dates for the massive blaze based on historic data from a weather station on Blue Mountain.

Hollingsworth and Anderson are both long-term fire analysts, members of a "science team" tasked with trying to predict the Lolo Peak fire's future. Working out of a trailer parked at the nerve center of the incident command post east of Florence, the two spend their days poring over precipitation records, fuel conditions and drought forecasts—anything that might contribute to the fire's activity in the days and weeks to come. The intelligence they gather is informed by or combined with data generated by other members of their team, including an incident meteorologist and a fire behavior analyst. Hollingsworth says the team offers a "holistic look" at the fire's growth—an approach, she adds, that's still new among Type 1 incident command teams in the Northern Rockies.

"Most people are far more focused, for very good reasons, on just the very immediate future," she says. "We're trying to look at things from a different angle and say, 'What's coming down the road that we need to take into account so that what's being planned right now can be successful?'"

Though the team's research is being used to predict potential end dates for the Lolo Peak fire, Anderson says their work isn't aimed at answering a single question. He uses precipitation as an example. A tenth of an inch of rain might slow the fire's spread in the short-term, perhaps altering the immediate firefighting strategy. In the science team's view, however, that shot of moisture generates longer term considerations.

"The question becomes, OK, when is this thing going to stand back up,'" Anderson says, "or, 'Do we have opportunities in certain places that we can take advantage of this rain?'"

Fire analyst LaWen Hollingsworth briefs members of an incoming incident command team on Aug. 29 regarding the data collected by herself and the rest of the “science team” working the Lolo Peak fire. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Fire analyst LaWen Hollingsworth briefs members of an incoming incident command team on Aug. 29 regarding the data collected by herself and the rest of the “science team” working the Lolo Peak fire.

Hollingsworth and Anderson see a lot of opportunity in such a big-picture approach to wildfire strategy, based on their backgrounds with the U.S. Forest Service. Hollingsworth started out with the agency as a fire ecologist and has spent the past six years working at the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab. She was assigned to her first 14-day deployment on Lolo Peak shortly after the fire broke out in July, and refers to her science team duties as a "natural extension of my day job." Anderson, who arrived as a science team trainee Aug. 22, studied silviculture at the University of Montana and found wildfire work "kind of addicting."

"If we can use science to get ahead of this thing and prevent houses from burning up," he says, "then it's all worth it."

Supplying incident commanders with predictions and forecasts used to fight a fire like Lolo Peak comes with no small amount of pressure. Gerald Claycomb, the National Weather Service meteorologist assigned to the Lolo Peak science team, says he feels that pressure every day. Fire is extremely reactive to weather, and it's Claycomb's job to nail down critical factors such as wind speed and direction, temperatures, inversion layers and humidity levels.

"Every forecast I put out, I worry about until they finish their operation," says Claycomb, who was on his second deployment to the Lolo Peak fire this month. "The fire reacts to the weather right away. If you're off 30 degrees on your wind direction, that fire's going to move a different direction than what the firefighters are expecting."

Meteorologists are nothing new in wildland firefighting. Claycomb has been working with fire crews on behalf of NWS for 14 years. Nor are fire behavior analysts a cutting-edge addition to incident management. Rather, it's the scope of the data collected and the way in which it's interpreted that Hollingsworth says represents her team's "progressive approach." They deal in long-term variables—pieces of the firefighting equation that could prove invaluable to incident commanders as they strategize the best ways to combat a weeks- or months-long blaze.

"We're in a changing environment," Hollingsworth says. "The earth is changing. Thoughts and ideas have to change along with it, how we've thought about fire in the past and how we think about fire in the future."

And that doesn't go for just the Lolo Peak fire. During their final briefing Aug. 29, Hollingsworth and Anderson passed their intel along to a new group of scientists and headed off to their next assignment.

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