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Decisions by 'incident meteorologists' could dictate safety of fighting Bighorn Fire

Posted at 11:12 PM, Jun 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-30 08:23:44-04

ORO VALLEY, Ariz. — They're called 'incident meteorologists' and their job everyday is to tell crews how the flames could react to different wind speeds, directions or how rainfall or heat could affect the fire.

As they say, their decisions could be life or death for these crews.

"I do feel very responsible for that when I'm here, that's a primary concern and that does keep me up at night."

Carl Cerniglia works for the National Weather Service, forecasting all manner of weather patterns.

He said the Bighorn Fire has kept him busy looking at wind speeds in order to protect fire crews on the mountains.

"If they know a wind-shift is coming ahead of time they can be out of harm's way before the fire reaches them."
He said his day starts at about 4 a.m., most of it, informing different crews on the ground, or in the sky, what the weather will do to the fire.

The very fate of the crews battling the fires can rely on his daily forecast: one in the morning, the other for the night shift.

"I have to have that turned in by one o'clock and then I have the rest of the afternoon to work on the forecast for tomorrow."

So, the cycle turns, like the propellers of an aircraft, which can also be affected by Cerniglia's forecast.

"It's going to impact their air operations, as far as the helicopters being able to fly. Also, the air tankers, the winged air-craft whether they can even be effective, which they're not in this type of wind."

His forecasts can even dictate where crews need to work ahead of a weather event, like when a storm over Idaho drove up wind speeds on the Catalinas.

"A lot of the work they did up there to make that donut hole, up on Summerhaven and around Willow Canyon, was based on the fact that they needed to get that done in order to be prepared for this wind event."

It might seem simple to assume monsoon season will solve all the problems caused by the Bighorn Fire, Cernigia disagrees.

"It is not that simple, not on a burn scar. The problem with a burn scar is it cleans the vegetation off the slopes which means water can run off more quickly."

Scars from the fire, he said, could make rainfall from monsoons cause flash floods because of smoother, water repellent surfaces.