To date, the U.S. has seen more than 50,000 wildfires resulting in nearly seven million acres burned in 2022. Organizing resources and crews to fight wildfires is an enormous undertaking. Today, more than 15,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to wildfire incidents across the country. Among the crews are specially trained meteorologists with NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS), called Incident Meteorologists (IMETs).
When there is a large wildfire, an IMET is often deployed to the fire incident command post. IMETs provide critical fire weather information to wildfire management teams so they can map out the safest possible tactics for firefighters, while also generating immediate and short-term spot forecasts needed for fire suppression. NOAA has approximately 100 IMETs and IMET trainees that are stationed at NWS forecast offices throughout the country, ready to deploy.
We captured IMETs in action at several wildfires in the West during the last two weeks of August, 2022. Take a visual journey with NOAA’s IMETs as they travel to the fire line to provide critical weather data.
Goal: Keep firefighters safe
Incident Meteorologist (IMET) Brett Lutz provides a weather briefing to firefighters at the Rum Creek Fire in southwest Oregon on August 29, 2022. IMETs typically work 16-hour days for up to 14 days straight. The large map behind Lutz is updated and posted daily to show where the fire has progressed, different fire management tactics that have been used and where firefighting efforts will take place. Weather forecasts from IMETs, along with information about terrain and ground cover type, give analysts an idea of how fast and how far a fire may move. This information gives operations personnel a baseline when deciding fire suppression and safety measures. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
IMET trainee Rebecca Muessle provides an update on weather conditions to fire crews at Six Rivers Lightning Fire in Northern California on August 23, 2022. Briefings and coordination between IMETs and fire managers happen several times a day to enable firefighters to safely combat wildfires. Trainees complete more than 225 hours of fire weather training and on-the-job training before becoming certified. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
Long days and nights
(LEFT) Firefighters and support personnel read the latest Incident Action Plan while listening to an IMET briefing on the weather forecast at fire camp for the Rum Creek Fire in Oregon on August 28, 2022. Safety is the number one priority at a wildfire. Knowing the latest and expected weather is critical to the safety of all aviation resources and personnel on a fire. (RIGHT) The typical fire camp is its own town, but you won’t find a hotel or restaurant nearby. Firefighters and support teams sleep in tents for days — even weeks — on end, and rely on trucks with food and showers to keep them going. More than 2,000 personnel supported the McKinney Fire, which started on July 29, 2022 and is 99% contained as of this writing. Pictured here: Sunset at fire camp, McKinney Fire, August 27, 2022. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
Smoke shrouds the trees as firefighters in fire-resistant Nomex clothing pack to go to the fire line at Rum Creek Fire in southwest Oregon on August 29, 2022. Firefighters make progress protecting homes and structures, and establish control lines to contain the Rum Creek Fire’s speak to the west, south and east. The main weather concern from the IMET is heavy smoke impacting air quality, which also results in a slight cooling effect on the fire. In the following days fire conditions will grow increasingly dangerous, with hundreds of Oregonians forced to evacuate before Labor Day. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
Clearing a path
A firefighter clears brush near an escape route for firefighters at Rum Creek Fire in southwest Oregon on August 29, 2022. A series of heat waves, on top of the prolonged drought in the West, have fueled dozens of wildfires throughout the month. The combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and dryness fuels the rapid spread and erratic behavior of any fire that gets started. These factors also make it exceedingly difficult to fight the fires that are already burning. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
Communication is key
(LEFT) IMETs communicate with members of the incident command team at Rum Creek Fire in Oregon on August 28, 2022. Fire camp is a busy place. There’s very little time to do much besides work, eat and sleep at a fire camp. (RIGHT) Because the weather never stops, fire crews rely on accurate and timely forecast updates. If the wind shifts or thunderstorms are nearing a wildfire, IMETs and others can communicate forecast updates to fire crews. Radio communication is crucial to firefighters in the field as well as all aspects of incident command. Shown here are crews lining up for a portable radio at the Rum Creek Fire on August 28, 2022. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
Wildfires blaze across the West
Rum Creek Fire rages in southwest Oregon prompting evacuations of multiple communities on August 30, 2022. More than 1,000 personnel have worked to suppress this fire so far, including two IMETs and two IMET trainees. Forecasting for a wildfire requires a unique set of knowledge and skills. IMETs are trained to know how a fire reacts to certain weather, fuel and topographic conditions, enabling them to forecast fire weather in complex mountain terrain. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
Wildfire impacts go beyond acres burned
McKinney Fire, August 26, 2022: Destructive wildfires have driven thousands from their homes this year. Shown above is the charred town of Klamath River, California, near KIamath National Forest. Four residents were killed and only a handful of homes in this small community withstood the fire. As development in traditional wildland spaces grows, we are seeing an increase in human habitat threatened by wildfire. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
A team effort
IMET Terry Lebo creates a forecast as he works alongside a fire behavior analyst to provide support to contain the McKinney Fire in California on August 26, 2022. In addition to a daily forecast, Lebo can issue a spot forecast when operations personnel request information on what weather conditions are expected on a specific slope or in certain valley locations. To complete this task an IMET uses their mountain and micrometeorology training and real-time observations. These observations are collected from Remote Automatic Weather Stations, which update every 15 minutes, and NOAA’s GOES satellite, which updates every five minutes. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
Eyes in the sky for firefighters on the ground
IMET Jeff Tonkin and IMET trainee Rebecca Muessle discussing their aviation forecast and briefing at the helibase of the Six Rivers Lightning Fire in Northern California on August 22, 2022. In addition to aircraft monitoring a wildfire’s spread, helicopters are used to carry large buckets of water to douse hotspots while air tankers release water or retardant over wildfires. (Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)
Due in part to the impacts of climate change, there is no longer an official “fire weather season,” as wildfires now occur year-round in the U.S., burning more intensely and scorching more land than in years past. As a result, demand for IMET expertise has increased. This year, NOAA more than doubled the number of new trainees to the IMET program to ensure the agency is ready to support firefighting efforts with a highly trained cadre of specialized meteorologists.