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After the fire disaster in Paradise, meteorologists mull how to improve warning system

Kevin Ciotta looks over the remains of a community center at the Butte Creek Mobile Home Park in Chico, Calif., on Nov. 26. (Mason Trinca/The Washington Post)
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After claiming at least 88 lives, destroying 18,793 structures and scorching an area 3½ times the size of Washington, California’s deadliest wildfire is entirely contained. As communities search for the nearly 300 missing in the wake of the disaster, one must ask: Was a more effective warning possible before the flames tore through Paradise?

The scale of the Camp Fire catastrophe highlights a key problem when it comes to forecasting and handling wildfires: The information is available, but it stems from nearly a half-dozen sources. That places an insurmountable burden on decision-makers to gather and sift through the latest information in real time — while making judgment calls in a life-or-death situation.

Fire weather forecasts” start at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. Every day, meteorologists evaluate predicted humidity, wind speed, temperatures and the possibility of ignition by dry lightning strikes to gauge a region’s risk for wildfire. They draw up outlooks a week in advance.

On Nov. 8 — the day of the Camp Fire — they advertised the threat in Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Riverside and Glendale as “extremely critical.” In the zone around Paradise as well as Sacramento, San Jose, and San Francisco, the threat was described as “critical.”

Their bulletin was dire, warning of “near record dry fuels” and the likelihood of “very rapid fire growth should ignition occur.” But unlike the Storm Prediction Center’s more well-known severe weather outlooks, which are commonly shown on air by broadcast meteorologists, far fewer people see these fire weather forecasts.

From there, the baton is passed to local National Weather Service offices. They can handle fire danger in two ways: a watch and a warning.

A fire weather watch “means that critical fire weather conditions are forecast to occur.” However, each of the 122 weather forecast offices across the country can set their own threshold for when to issue a watch. These alerts are typically hoisted 12 to 96 hours before the onset of dangerous fire weather conditions. When conditions conducive to wildfire development or growth arrive, a red-flag warning is issued.

This happens all the time in California. So far this year, the Weather Service office in Sacramento has issued 11 fire weather watches and 11 red-flag warnings for Butte County, which once contained the city of Paradise. It inevitably leads to warning fatigue. As Axios science editor Andrew Freedman wrote: “Knowing that the conditions are right is one thing. It’s another to learn that a wall of flames is actually barreling toward your house.”

That’s where we hit a brick wall. The Weather Service can warn you when conditions are favorable for wildfires. But once a fire breaks out, it’s entirely up to emergency managers to sound the alarm.

In other life-threatening weather situations, meteorologists can trip the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system. You may be familiar with this premise: Your phone suddenly awakens with a high-pitched shrill and buzz, flashing phrases such as “Tornado Warning” or “Flash Flood Warning.” There are nine such alerts the Weather Service can issue that will prompt this response. Forecasts of fire danger aren’t one of them. However, local emergency officials may activate the WEA for fires at their discretion.

Technically, there is a fire warning that the Weather Service can issue — but only at the request of local officials. Meteorologists can advise decision-makers, but the latter ultimately have to pull the trigger. It does blast over the Emergency Alert System (EAS) airwaves the same way a tornado warning does, but fire warnings are very rarely used.

In a rapidly evolving and chaotic environment, achieving the level of coordination required to get a fire warning out is seldom possible. It appears that little warning was provided during the Camp Fire’s rapid expansion into Paradise and that its reach was limited.

“Only a fraction of people living near the fire received alerts or evacuation orders from local authorities,” the New York Times reported.

This discrepancy underscores the need for a short-fused Weather Service product — one that encompasses a small area, like a tornado warning, and elicits the same level of urgency through the EAS, some meteorologists say.

The National Weather Service has satellites that can sense a developing “hot spot” before the first flames erupt. With up-to-the-minute technology and rapid-refresh models that can anticipate what a fire will do next, meteorologists could alert folks downwind in the projected path.

It’s a sentiment that has been echoed far and wide on social media as Paradise continues to pick up the pieces.

“There were many of us who were painfully aware of how bad things were about to get in #Paradise in the early hours of the #CampFire just using radar and satellite imagery from afar,” tweeted Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Some have raised questions about how effective such alerts would be. Meteorologists are trained in forecasting wildfire behavior and movement, but not the behavior and movement of people in its path and their ability to escape.

“These ‘mountain’ towns just don’t have enough adequate escape routes for the number of people in them,” tweeted Chip Redmond, a meteorologist who has worked as a fire weather forecaster and firefighter. “Poor planning and development in many western towns paint an ugly future for fast moving wildfires regardless of advanced notice.”

But Swain replied that there are probably “many” cases in which such warnings would “mitigate loss of life.”

Implementation of such a warning would be the next big hurdle. Patrick Marsh, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, said such a process would require coordination among many stakeholders and integration into a complex system. It is “a big ship to turn,” he tweeted.

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