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Byte My Fire

Blazes won't get much higher in the West this year, new computer technology predicts

MONDAY, July 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The art of wildfire prediction has a lot to do with guesswork and little to do with technology. Armed with a kind of computerized crystal ball, a California university is hoping to change all that and revolutionize the way firefighters prepare to do their jobs.

Using a computer model based on decades of data, the University of California at San Diego is predicting that this year's wildfire season in much of the West will be much less severe than in 2000, when blazes devastated several states.

"We show an above-average fire season in the Rockies, Idaho and Colorado, and below average in most of the lands west of that, nowhere near as bad as last year," said Anthony Westerling, a climate researcher at the university's Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

The forecast looks good for many areas because the previous year was fairly dry. That may sound counterintuitive, but it makes sense, Westerly said.

"One of the patterns that keeps showing up is that when it's wet for a year or two and then dry, that can give you a big fire season in a lot of places," he said. "We're coming out of several dry years in a row, so we have a lot of places where the fuels aren't available like they were last year."

Wildfire predictions are important because they allow firefighting agencies to prepare and deploy their resources. "We want to use these long-range forecasts to predict how many fires we expect and their severity, so we can determine the [most vulnerable] areas and focus our energies there," said Rick Ochoa, a climate expert with the National Interagency Fire Center.

Wildfires can be devastating and deadly. In 2000, more than 90,000 blazes broke out, burning 7 million acres and causing $1.6 billion in damage.

Depending on the area of the country, wildfire seasons begin at different times of the year. So far this year, the number of fires over much of the West has been much lower than in 2000, except in the northern part of the region.

According to Westerling, fire officials generally make predictions in one of two ways. Some look at the climate over the previous year and predict how it will affect the level of dry, flammable vegetation like trees, grasses and brush. The other approach is to forecast weather conditions and how they may affect the risk of fire.

"They are both related to climate," Westerling said. "One is looking at observations in the past, and the other is looking at what you can forecast about the climate in the future."

Some researchers go as far as to examine tree rings and "fire scars" on trees to figure out the connections between climate and fire, he added.

The problem is that much of the available information is localized to one area, like Yellowstone or Yosemite national parks, he said. In his research, Westerling used a computer to study fire and climate patterns over the past 20 to 30 years in all the areas and then used that as a basis for comparisons over the last few years. He also included information about the dryness of vegetation.

"We're using statistical techniques that rely on what is going on all over the West, not just one particular area," he said.

Fire officials in the West know about Westerling's forecast and are curious about it, said Ochoa of the National Interagency Fire Center. "But we don't have a feel for its utility."

What To Do

If you're in fire country, consult your local firefighting officials about what precautions to take this year.

To get weekly forecasts of fire danger, consult this map designed by the National Interagency Fire Center.

The state of Colorado offers advice on protecting your home from wildfires.

SOURCES: Interviews with Anthony Westerling, Ph.D., researcher, Climate Research Division, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego; Rick Ochoa, fire weather program manager, National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho
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