Monday, September 30, 2013

Yarnell Hill Fire Report

The report is out about the horrific Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona June 30th that lead to the death of 19 elite firefighters. The report is thorough. I was sorry, but not surprised, to learn that incompatible radio frequencies again played a role in a public service tragedy. I'm not sure why this same problem persists so many years after September 11 and in spite of all of the subsequent calls to remedy it.

However, I was struck by this statement which is reiterated several times in the report:
The weather update accurately forecast the wind shift that drove the fire toward the firefighters. A thunderstorm's outflow boundary (gust front) caused the wind to shift and increase with gusts to 50 mph. This helped doom the firefighters. The report makes clear, without stating it explicitly, the implications of the outflow boundary were either not fully digested and/or not fully believed.

As meteorologist Dr. Cliff Mass reported shortly after the tragedy, the meteorological computer model guidance of this entire event was quite accurate. I recommend you read Dr. Mass' report before I make my next point.

The report goes on to suggest (p. 49):
This, in my opinion, could not be worse advice.

I present weather safety for business seminars for AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions across the United States. One of the pieces of advice for security, risk analysis, and business people is not to 'play' meteorologist. Meteorology, today, provides highly accurate guidance in extreme weather situations of all kinds, as it did in Arizona that horrible afternoon. Asking people untrained in weather science to make life-and-death decisions is both unfair and likely to have adverse results.

Go back through Dr. Mass' blog. Do you really believe a non-meteorologist, in the field facing a rapidly growing wildfire, could make sense of all of that technical information?!

Weather science provides an amazingly high quality of service at a low cost to society. There should be less, rather than more, second-guessing of qualified meteorologists. 


  1. The challenge with Western US firefighting is that, in many locations, reliable cell coverage DOES NOT EXIST. Even at base camps. Firefighters need a reliable back up system to 4G networks which simply are unreliable at best in many remote areas in the Western US. Although the weather science exists, the challenge remains to communicate timely information to those on the ground, especially in rapidly changing environment such as summer afternoons in the Western US.

  2. Brian,
    If you read the report, the fire fighters had the 1526 weather update which correctly forecast the gust front.


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