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Nov 14, 2020· 5 min, 23 sec

To Better Fight Wildfires, We Need Better Weather Forecasts

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Over the past two decades, the world has battled some of the deadliest mega-fires in history. These weather and climate disasters bring unprecedented losses in the form of home and infrastructure damage, air pollution, alongside firefighting costs. 
The 2017 and 2018 wildfire season in California and other American states, for instance, went down as one of the most destructive fires after causing a record over $40 billion in losses. Another notable disaster was Australia’s devastating bushfire crisis in 2019-2020. At the moment, thousands of firefighters are trying to contain wildfires across California. 
With the continued climate change, the risk and extent of wildfires continue to increase. A state like California is still working to contain wildfires across the region. And because weather plays an important role in how wildfires start, how fast they spread, and how dangerous the fire becomes, we can leverage weather data to help contain wildfires.
But before diving into more details, let’s understand the impact of different weather conditions on wildfires.

How weather elements affect wildfires

There are several weatherrelated factors that affect fire behavior. Here’s a quick look at these weather elements.
Temperature – During the hot season, there’s a lot of heat which increases the likelihood of a wildfire breaking out. Once the fire has been lit by an unattended campfire or discarded cigarette, it spreads faster in hot air as compared to cold climates.
Humidity – Wildfires grow quickly in drought conditions because trees and shrubs can easily catch flames. On the other hand, high humidity levels suppress the likeliness of wildfires since fuels contain more water.
Wind– Although wildfires spread faster in hot and dry areas, it’s the wind patterns that influence the behavior of wildfires more. This is because fires follow the direction of the wind. When winds blow faster, they steer the direction and progress of wildfires. Another impact of wind is that it blows embers which ignite other areas, making it difficult to control the fire.
Precipitation – Precipitation in the form of rain or snow increases humidity levels and dampens fuel surfaces, thereby eliminating the risk of wildfires. When the rains lessen and dry weather sets in, moisture on fuel surfaces evaporates, making more vegetation available for burning. As such, precipitation patterns are a major determinant of when the fire season begins.
Other conditions such as dry lightning and thunderstorms can also ignite a wildfire, especially in areas with low humidity levels.

Why weather knowledge is critical to fighting wildfires

As explained above, different weather patterns influence the ignition of wildfires and how they spread out. Additionally, wildfire flames and smoke can change weather patterns within the surrounding areas. But how exactly does this weather information help in suppressing wildfires?
First, firefighters can predict the best way to cut off the fire and preventing it from spreading. When you know where to dig the control line and effectively attack the fire, then it becomes much easier to put it out. 
Whether you’re employing aerial attacks, flanking, backburns, or any other wildfire suppression strategy, you must keep track of factors such as changes in wind speed and wind direction.
Another benefit of weather data is that it helps scientists and authorities predict the possibility of a fire outbreak. This enables concerned parties to establish and reinforce measures to prevent wildfires before they occur. 
For example, during hot and dry days, there’s a higher fire danger. During such days, Authorities can prohibit hikers and campers from lighting fires until the dangerous conditions die down. This minimizes potential outbreaks and ensures the safety of citizens.

Managing wildfires with the help of a weather API

Live data feed from weather and meteorological providers can help in firefighters manage and respond to wildfires more effectively. To do so, you would need access to a weather API that provides both current and forecast data for a wide range of weather conditions in your location. 
Some weather APIs you can use include AerisWeather, Weatherbit, Open Weather Map, Accuweather.
For this article, let’s use the weather API since it provides some of the most accurate microweather data for almost every location across the globe. It also has a fire index, which is handy when it comes to fighting wildfires.
To get started, you must first sign up on the website and obtain an API key. You can find the key on your dashboard. 
Remember that the API key is used for secure authentication and should be kept as a secret. Although we have not redacted the key in the example API call in this article (for demonstration purposes), always ensure your key is not exposed on the client-side of your application.
After signing up, you start by obtaining the geo-coordinates for the target location. In this case, let’s use the San Francisco Bay Area, California as an example. Our location coordinates will be as follows:
Next, gather all parameters for weather conditions that influence wildfires, as discussed earlier in the article. Some weather elements you’d want to fetch in your API call include temperature precipitation, wind speed, wind direction, wind gust, humidity dew point, and more. 
There’s no limit to the data fields you can include. You only need to ensure that the most important factors are included.
So, provided we include the coordinates for the San Francisco Bay Area and the above data-fields in our API call, the request should look like this:
After sending the request, it returns weather data for all the requested data fields. Below is the response comes in the form of a JSON document.
With this data, firefighters can predict fire behavior transitions and make critical decisions to contain and suppress a wildfire.  
The fire index data layer also provides the real-time risk of fire in a particular region, usually measured on a scale of 1 to 100. This allows you to predict hotspot locations and take the necessary precautions. 
For instance, a period of high temperatures and low humidity is a good indicator of wildfire risk. With these conditions, the fire index would be higher, which alerts individuals to take caution and prepare for emergencies.
Understanding how weather conditions impact wildfires is essential if you’re looking to enforce safety procedures and gain control over the fire. Although battling wildfires is not an easy job, fire managers who focus on key atmospheric variables such as temperature, humidity, and wind patterns stand a better chance of containing the fires.

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