Wildfires: A Window into Science

By Jack Williams ©2015

The stunning images from the wildfires sweeping parts of the Los Angeles area offer a good way to illustrate how science helps us understand the world.

Other wildfires in the future will offer similar opportunities for teachers, writers, and broadcasters.

The opening of Chapter 9 of The AMS Weather Book is an example of how this can be done. It takes readers to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, as managers use weather data to deploy fire-fighting resources and then to McCall, Idaho, were Coleen Decker is providing on-the-scene forecasts for firefighters working in the Payette National Forest.

A satellite image shows smoke hanging over the Los Angeles area or drifting to the east. Image from NASA.

A satellite image shows smoke hanging over the Los Angeles area or drifting to the east. Image from NASA.

Decker is a National Weather Service incident meteorologist, working out of the Boise office. The story of how she, and other incident meteorologists, forecast for firefighters leads into the chapter’s topic of mesoscale (middle size) weather such as around the area of a wildfire, clusters and lines of thunderstorms, and localized winds, such as the Santa Ana winds of California.

The chapter’s text and graphics explain why on-the-scene meteorologists are vital to wildfire crews and how lack of warnings of wind shifts have killed firefighters. The Explorations: Fire Weather page on the book’s Supplementary Texts Web site lists Web sites and books with more on this.

Any writer or broadcaster looking for a new angle on wildfires could do what I did, spend some time with an incident meteorologist who is forecasting for fire fighters. Much of the time these meteorologists work at the camps where the firefighters sleep and eat. The National Weather Service office nearest to the fire should be able to help you contact the incident meteorologist at the scene.

One of the best known of the localized winds described and illustrated in a graphic in the AMS Weather Book are the Santa Ana winds of  California, which fan the flames in some of the state’s worst wildfires.

However, the Santa Ana winds have not been involved in the current  Los Angeles  fires, which is making the air pollution associated with any wildfire worse. Santa Ana winds blow from east to west, which carries a great deal of smoke from California fires out over the ocean.

Without the these winds, the smoke is lingering over the Los Angeles area or being carried to other inhabited places. A September 1  air quality statement is typical of the alerts for unhealthy air caused by the tiny particles in the smoke. The graphic on Page 266 of the AMS Weather Book illustrates why the lung damage such particles cause is so dangerous.

The extensive material, including graphics,  on air pollution in Chapter 11 of the AMS Weather Book is also a good resource for teachers, writers and broadcasters. As with the book’s other chapters, the Sources for Chapter 11 page on the book’s Supplementary Texts Web site is a good place to begin further research.

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