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High stakes for meteorologist on wildfire front lines

Everyone relies on weather forecasters to make plans that help their lives run smoothly, but imagine depending on predictions where accuracy is key to survival.

Somewhere among the lines of Nomex-clad firefighters marching or chopping or digging and below helicopters dumping water on a wildfire, there’s a very important person like Stephen Reedy. He’s an incident meteorologist.

“The National Weather service works on many levels. We have the broader fire weather forecast, which I’m responsible for when I’m not out on a fire, and then we also have the spot forecast that we narrow it down further,” says Reedy. “And then the incident meteorologist is really that fine toothed comb at the ground level where yes, I’m supposed to be tailoring my forecast particularly for that incident, taking into account the terrain effects on weather. It makes it a very difficult job.”

Reedy was that front-line forecaster for nine years in Arizona before transferring to Washington state. He gets the call, drives towards the flames, and starts a series of long, intense days.

“I will provide on-site weather support to the incident command team for the wildfire. I will work hand in hand with the fire behaviorist, as well as operations and plans, to make sure that the weather is conducive to what they need to accomplish on the fire,” says Reedy. “If anything should arise, I need to inform them immediately.”

If Reedy’s responsibilities sound less than heroic, consider what that means. You have to come up with a forecasting model not for a whole region, but on a micro scale, taking into account wind, temperature, and humidity. You also have to consider variations in terrain elevation, slope, fuel type, and exposure.

“That’s why I’ve got so much gray hair at 35,” jokes Reedy.

The stakes are frighteningly high – far above a snarled commute or a soggy picnic.

“You understand that you have all these lives in your hands and it’s dependent on the forecast,” says Reedy. “That can be a little overwhelming, but at the same time when you’re in a weather service office, you don’t get the feedback a lot of times. You don’t feel that your forecast is making a difference. When you’re out there, your forecast is making a difference every single day.”

So while you might not see Reedy or one of his colleagues on the nightly news, you should be grateful he’s out there somewhere, doing the closest thing possible to combat weather forecasting.

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