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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.

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This led Mass to look back over satellite photos and regional radar, which at 1 p.m. showed a line of thundershowers moving toward the area from the northeast. By 3:30 p.m., clouds had moved over the fire site. By 4:45 p.m., a pyrocumulus cloud – a towering cloud formed by rising heat from the fire – had punched through the clouds the storm brought. From above, that was a telltale sign the fire had exploded, Mass explains.

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Warning signs also were appearing in the output of the high-resolution, rapid-response forecast model from the National Weather Service (NWS), Mass notes. It put the storm over the fire site about the same time that clouds began to cover the area.

The model is designed to provide fresh 18-hour forecasts once an hour. Another forecast model, at the University of Arizona, yielded similar results.

"That's what bothers me so much," Mass says. "Perhaps this didn't have to happen. The data was there to have saved these people."

Typically, on major fires, incident managers will call on the local NWS forecast office for weather-forecasting support, notes Heath Hockenberry, who manages the NWS's fire-weather program, based in Boise, Idaho.

Incident managers take a look at the complexity of the initial fire and the resources available and determine what people and equipment to send in for the initial attack on the fire, he says. Those decisions include determining if on-site forecasters are needed or whether firefighters can get by relying on the general forecasts that the local forecast office provides.

When forecasters are called in, "we show up with a laptop, a global broadband unit to get satellite data, and usually we just plug into the team's network," he says. "We start forecasting as soon as we get there."

The forecast teams primarily look for anything that has the potential to compromise safety, Mr. Hockenberry says. Thunderstorm outflows, such as those that apparently turned the fire on the firefighters at Yarnell Hill, top the list.

Typically, NWS forecasters are called in for on-site forecasts when a firefighting effort becomes most complex, relying on resources from multiple agencies or political jurisdictions, he says.

That day, the local forecast office was supplying forecasts "that we do every day for every department," Hockenberry says. "Unfortunately, what happened over the weekend was that we didn't have a person on site; we weren't requested."

The fire hadn't reached a level of complexity to prompt incident managers to call in the weather cavalry.

"That's the really sad part," he adds. "There's just not enough [forecasting] bodies to go around to respond to everything. The firefighters – they have to respond to everything."

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