San Jose State climate scientists gathering data to forecast wildland fire behavior

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Climate scientists have moved into the state's burn zones with a goal to help firefighters to anticipate and prepare for erratic behavior of wildfires. Computer simulations will help do this, but it's estimated it may take five years of data gathering to achieve that.

Fire weather scientist Craig Clements and a team of six graduate students from San Jose State moved into the Carr Fire burn zone near Redding as soon as it was safe to do so. Their mission was to gather weather data, using a truck equipped with laser beam sensors and other instruments. "Is there a need to bring that technology to a wildfire?" posed Dr. Clements. "I think based on what we're seeing in California now, the answer's yes."

VIDEO: Huge fire retardant drops over Carr Fire in Shasta County

Researchers want data to fine tune computer simulation programs to provide wildland firefighters with tools to predict how a fire will behave under specific weather conditions. "What we want to do is then simulate the fires using sophisticated fire behavior models, and we have the data that can be put into those models, and then we can actually run out these scenarios and better understand how fast are those fires moving, how intense are they going to be," said Clements.

A dramatic fire tornado on July 26 in the vicinity of Buenaventura Blvd. in Redding led to the death of a Redding firefighter and a CalFire bulldozer operator at the Carr Fire. It generated tornado-force winds of 165 miles an hour and temperatures that topped 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. It's a case study that will help them understand how these events can develop so quickly.

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Clements showed ABC7 News Cal Fire's video of that tornado as he pointed out, "Usually the fire's moving in one direction, and here it's moving in multiple directions because of the circulation, and so that's why fire whirls and fire tornados and rotating columns are dangerous."
Clements says fire behavior is influenced by three factors -- climate, topography, and fuel load. They've got instruments such as fuel moisture sticks to monitor how fast trees and sticks will burn. Conditions are at severe levels in much of the state. "When fuels get to actually below 70%, they can burn easily," he said. "We're done at 60 or so (in the Los Gatos area of the Santa Cruz mountains), and we're only in August."

With the amount of research still to be done, Craig Clements has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to get a second mobile vehicle. The new one, to be equipped with radar, to continue his groundbreaking research. He hopes some day weather monitoring devices can be installed on fire rigs.

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