Arizona firefighters killed: Would on-site forecasting have averted tragedy? (+video)
The local National Weather Service forecast office was supplying forecasts the day the Arizona firefighters died, but on-site forecasters – something used for the most complex firefighting efforts – hadn't been called in.
Was it for want of a weather forecast that 19 firefighters were lost?Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Wildfires 2013
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As friends, family, and even strangers mourn the loss of all but one member of a "Hotshot Crew" fighting the Yarnell Hill fire, a team of investigators reportedly has arrived to reconstruct the events that led to the deaths of the firefighters Sunday.
The fire, which started last Friday following a lightning strike, had covered only about 200 acres when high winds on Saturday fanned the blaze, expanding it to 2,000 acres within a few hours, according to the Associated Press.
By Monday morning, the fire had enlarged to 8,400 acres, its rough size Tuesday as it burns through grass and chaparral. The fire reportedly has destroyed some 50 homes.
"The winds were coming from the southeast, blowing to the west, away from Yarnell and populated areas. Then the wind started to blow in. The wind kicked up to 40- to 50-mile-per-hour gusts, and it blew east, south, west – every which way," Prescott, Ariz., city councilman Len Scamardo told the AP. "What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back and trapped them."
The question for meteorologist Cliff Mass, at the University of Washington in Seattle, is whether anyone had pointed out in advance the strong likelihood that this would happen. The downdraft, known as a gust front, came from an approaching storm and served as a blacksmith's bellows, quickly reversing the wind direction that had prevailed through much of the afternoon and suddenly turning the fire back onto the firefighters.
"We have satellite images every 15 minutes and radar every six minutes," says Dr. Mass, a meteorology professor at the university who performs weather forecasts for firefighters in the Pacific Northwest. "This was not a difficult forecast."
Balloon-based measurements of the atmosphere taken at Flagstaff, Ariz., at 1 p.m. local time Sunday showed that in terms of the potential for powerful downdrafts should thunderstorms build, the atmosphere was loaded for bear.
A remote weather station about five miles from where the fire started and set up to monitor conditions in potentially fire-prone areas tells the story from the local perspective, Mass says.
From midday through 5 p.m., winds were blowing generally out of the south at about 30 miles an hour, driving the fire away from Yarnell. At 5 p.m., the wind abruptly shifted, blowing out of the north at about 40 miles an hour with gusts up to 65 miles an hour. At the same time, measurements of sunlight had been falling in an uneven, stair-step pattern since about 2 p.m., indicating that clouds were spreading over the region.