news and events » news

News Header

News Item

return to News

Wildfire nerve center tracks the hot spots

by webmaster |

PORTLAND - Take a look around the nerve center of wildfire forecasting in the Northwest, the first thing you'll notice is the maps.

Pinned to bulletin boards, hanging from walls, beaming out from computer monitors and illuminated on a pull-down projector screen, maps cover the building's interior.

Workers use the maps to keep track of wildfires, weather, equipment and firefighting crews across Washington and Oregon. And employees at the wildfire center are expecting to keep busy through October.

A few campfire symbols have already popped up on the right side of these maps, signifying the onset of another hot, dry summer.

"We call it the calm before the storm," Marc Hollen, a public affairs officer at the center, said last week.

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center was established in 1988 to orchestrate firefighting resources from a half-dozen state and federal agencies within the two states. After two difficult fire years including the notorious Biscuit fire that covered a half-million acres of Southwest Oregon in 2002 an unusually dry late winter and spring portend another troublesome wildfire season.

An automated rain gauge at nearby Portland International Airport has measured barely half of normal since March.

Although forecasters say a spritzing of precipitation around Western Washington and Oregon in late June slightly reduced the fire danger, the region is still much drier than it should be for this time of year.

"I'm concerned," forecaster Paul Werth said.

Werth, who lives in the Hockinson foothills, said he's done all the things at his own home that wildfire experts recommend. He's cleared away brush and he's clipped low-hanging limbs to minimize the chance of a grass fire climbing into the crowns of trees. Many of his neighbors have done the same, and Werth knows that modern firefighting equipment and techniques make unlikely a forest fire the size of the 238,000-acre Yacolt Burn of 1902.

But, with thousands of residents now living in harm's way, a fire a fraction the size of the Yacolt Burn could cause a lot of damage.

"A 10-acre fire up there could burn half a dozen homes," Werth said.

At the dispatch center, the biggest map of all runs from the floor nearly to the ceiling. There, telltale campfire symbols have started to appear. One represents the Pot Peak fire near Lake Chelan, which by Saturday had covered 8,300 acres and was occupying 836 firefighters.

A series of coffee cup-size circles are scattered across the board, enabling air traffic controllers in Seattle to call in and correctly pinpoint the location of a puff of smoke spotted by pilots.

Jetliner and private pilots take seriously their role as airborne fire lookouts.

"After a good lightning bust comes through, we'll get inundated with a couple of hundred (reports)," said Steve Arasim, the assistant emergency operations manager.

Along with the fire symbols, the map contains dozens of movable wall lights about the size of a child's Hot Wheels car.

Orange represents a helicopter, red a single-engine air tanker. A white light represents one of the nation's 92 elite, 20-member Hot Shot firefighting crews. Two blue lights depict smokejumper crews based in Winthrop, Wash., and Redmond, Ore.

Working the phones and computer links, dispatchers can slide resources around the map clearly and efficiently matching manpower and equipment to wildfires anywhere in Oregon or Washington.

A readerboard near the ceiling flashes the month, date, as well as the exact hour in Pacific, Mountain, Central, Eastern and Greenwich Mean Time, helping dispatchers coordinate with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

So far, the region has been able to snuff fires with its own resources, allowing national commanders in Boise to pull Northwest crews and equipment to hot spots elsewhere in the country.

The region has had a minimum of dry lightning, and there have been few human-sparked fires. But Pat Houghton, assistant intelligence manager, said he's worried about the spate of unusually dry weather in traditionally soggy Western Washington especially as we head into the warmest part of the year.

"It's not going to take much to bring it over the edge," Houghton said.