Wildfires burn through nearly 6.9 million acres in the United States each year, putting 4.5 million homes at extreme or high risk, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Researchers are hoping to save lives by improving forecasting tools for these dangerous fires that plague mostly the West and Southwest United States.

Thomas Jones, a research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO) at the University of Oklahoma, is adapting fire and smoke information from satellites for use in cutting-edge forecasting systems to ultimately warn the public of incoming wildfire hazards and help local administrators and emergency service providers respond quickly.

For the past three years, Jones has collaborated with scientists at the NOAA Global Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., to adapt smoke plume forecasting tools developed for NOAA’s High Resolution Rapid-Refresh (HRRR) model to NOAA’s experimental Warn-on-Forecast System (WoFS). He is working to create algorithms to integrate smoke data into the WoFS, which aims to increase lead time for hazardous weather warnings. Because of Jones’s research and the emerging WoFS technology, NOAA National Weather Service forecasters will be able to receive fire updates in five-minute intervals, while existing smoke modeling systems are limited to hourly updates.

“Fires are a rapidly evolving weather condition. They can initiate from nothing and grow substantially in a matter of minutes,” said Jones, who holds a doctorate in atmospheric science. “Providing timely information about these changes to decision makers could result in the mitigation of wildfire impact downstream, which can be vital to protecting lives and property.”

In addition to more timely updates, incorporation into WoFS will enable a probabilistic smoke forecast based on other forces at play in the atmosphere.

“We can say, if the atmospheric conditions are slightly different, the smoke might go north, or it might go east, depending on which model solution is out there. And that's something other models can't do since they’re only deterministic. It might be right; it might be wrong. But currently, there's no window of realistic solutions shown to forecasters in real-time,” said Jones, who is helping to finetune WoFS’s experimental fire weather capabilities as part of the NOAA Fire Weather Testbed this summer.

The next phase of CIWRO’s fire weather research is to combine atmospheric and fire information within the WoFS, which could allow WoFS to predict a “pyro-tornado,” or a spinning vortex of smoke, debris and flames.

“It’s a rare event, but if our system could forecast something like this, that would be like the holy grail,” Jones said.

Wildfires are commonly associated with California, but many states are vulnerable to high-impact fire events, including Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

“Say a fire develops several miles down the road from here, and there's going to be a large smoke plume coming in. According to the WoFS forecast, what actions should this building take? Should you leave or stay inside? Depending on what's burning down the road, it could be some dangerous stuff. And if we knew which direction that was going, then people can act accordingly,” Jones said.

CIWRO expects to expand its fire weather team over the next few years and will host a Fire Weather Workshop in October to bring together diverse multi-disciplinary communities working in research on operational forecasting and impacts of fire weather. It will also focus on communicating risks of fire weather, economic impacts of fire and strategies for land management and prevention of fire. The workshop will discuss state-of-art methodologies on fire weather research, existing problems and uncertainties, impediments to solving those problems and the resources needed to overcome these impediments. Workshop partner organizations include OU School of Meteorology, Oklahoma Mesonet, NOAA Storm Prediction Center and the NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman.