Editor’s note: With the transition of winter to spring comes changes in weather patterns, which bring changes in fire behavior. FAC Net’s Member Services Coordinator Tiernan Doyle assembled the following resources on weather predictions and air quality forecasts. Before joining the FAC Net team, Tiernan worked as the Public Outreach Manager at the American Meteorological Society. 

Fire and weather go together like salt and pepper, rock and roll, and Batman and Robin. With the climate changing and weather becoming more unpredictable, it’s more important than ever to recognize the signs of fire weather, and know where to go to get more information. 

Fire weather prediction was brought into the National Weather Service portfolio after the Big Burn in 1910. Forecasting abilities had made huge leaps forward with the invention of the telegraph, and became a viable and important tool for helping firefighters as the U.S. Forest Service transitioned into increased fire related activities. Beginning in 1916, mobile incident meteorologists, or IMETs, were dispatched to fire camps to offer weather insights and planning assistance to fire crews. Originally these meteorologists traveled on horseback, with a larger team of horses carrying their equipment. Horses were eventually replaced by vans, and then small RVs that carried both forecasting teams and equipment to the front lines. NOAA has a great history of the IMET program along with some pictures of the horses from the first mobile fire weather forecasting unit here.  

a sepia toned photo of a man atop a horse and another horse with gear strapped to it

IMETs preparing to travel to a fire camp, circa 1920. Photo credit: NOAA.

Some of the critical weather elements that produce extreme fire behavior are low relative humidity, strong surface wind, unstable air and local drought conditions. There are also other localized weather and shifting climate patterns that will impact fire conditions. You can check out the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Critical Fire Weather page for more detailed information and an overview of relevant weather patterns in different areas of the country. For some more resources on fire weather forecasting and air quality in particular, explore the resources below.

Fire Weather Predictions

Your Local National Weather Service Forecasting Office (link)

It’s not always obvious where your closest National Weather Service forecasting office is, but it’s incredibly worthwhile to get to know their location, and what communication channels they use most often. Forecasting offices offer trustworthy, verified information from highly trained professionals and critical information about local safety. Local meteorologists also have deep connections to their community and lots of local flair. Twitter is usually one of the best ways to get quick updates and information from your local forecasting office. The app Deep Weather is another way to easily locate your local office and get their highly detailed weather discussions delivered to your phone. (Though be warned, these discussions can get pretty technical!) 

National Weather Service: Fire Weather (link) 

Don’t miss the National Weather Service’s one-stop shop for fire weather information. It provides maps of current hazards and warnings, fire weather outlooks and drought conditions across the United States. This is a great way to get a quick overview of current conditions at a large scale. You can click through the tabs on the page to get info on current fire weather forecasts, the latest wildland fire outlook and current large incidents.

Storm Prediction Center: Fire Outlook (link)

The NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center is an incredible resource for severe weather watchers across the U.S. Operating out of Norman, Oklahoma, they provide both current and historic hazardous weather information, graphics and forecasting tools. You can choose to go deep into the world of weather jargon, or just look at their maps and forecasts for a quick snapshot of watches and warnings. For fire weather, they provide one and two-day short term outlooks, which are issued twice a day in map form, as well as a three to eight day outlook that is issued once a day. These are also available from the main NWS Fire weather page. You can read a more in-depth description of their fire weather outlooks here. They also have this handy map of what the relative humidity thresholds are that will trigger critical fire weather warnings in different regions. 

A map of the USA with color coding by region

Relative humidity thresholds that trigger critical fire weather warnings in different regions. Image credit: NOAA.

National Fire Weather Outlook (link) 

These materials are aimed at helping fire management to make decisions for “proactive wildland fire management” to improve efficiencies, reduce costs and save lives. The graphics on this page can also be found on the main fire page at the National Weather Service, but it’s worth checking out the podcast that is linked just below the graphics section. They often have interesting insights into their process and thoughts on the fire outlook. Another great resource on this website is the fuels and fire danger products. This page includes maps of vegetation moisture from the Wildland Fire Assessment System, graphs of the numbers of fires and acres burned so far this year (updated weekly), and links to more detailed information on fuels and fire danger broken out by region. 

Weather and Fire Apps

There are a lot of weather and fire apps out on the market, each with different features and specifications. There’s everything from making your own fire weather calculations, to collecting InciWeb and satellite data, to monitoring specific locations for hazardous weather alerts with the Red Cross. The Southern Fire Exchange has a nice round up of different weather and fire related apps on this page. Any apps or technologies listed here are not endorsed by FAC Net.

Air Quality Forecasts and Monitoring

National Weather Service Air Quality Forecast Guidance (link)

This is the National Weather Service’s main air quality monitoring page, with maps of current ozone concentrations, surface smoke and dust, and vertical smoke and dust conditions. You can zoom into different regions to get a closer look at current air quality, smoke and dust. The readings on the map are fairly technical, but you can access a handy Air Quality Index (AQI) chart to help explain the readings by clicking the AQI Values button in the upper right hand corner above the map. 

A screenshot of a map program entitled Air Quality Forecast Guidance - CONUS Area

Interactive air quality forecast table from airquality.weather.gov

AirNow (link)

The AirNow Fire and Smoke Map has become one of the go-to places for community members to quickly assess their air quality. A collaboration between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), AirNow crowdsources air quality information from widespread PurpleAir monitors. Because EPA scientists have been able to develop a correction equation for the PurpleAir monitors, the data on AirNow is more reliable than many other home monitoring networks, and the map of sensors and air quality data can be viewed online at any time during a wildfire or not. Community members can also contribute to the information network if they own a PurpleAir sensor of their own. 

High-Resolution Rapid Refresh Smoke (HRRR) (link) 

This tool continues to be under development, but offers some fascinating forecasting and three dimensional visualizations of smoke plumes traveling across the continental US and into Canada. Known limitations to the effectiveness of this product are mainly due to the fact that this information comes from satellites. Fire starts can be missed due to cloud cover; and estimates on the amount of biomass burning may be too large or too small, and can result in incorrect smoke prediction. 

We hope this resource round-up is useful to you. If you have ideas or other resources you look to for weather information, share them in the comments!

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