Cantwell: “We Owe It To Those Firefighters To Make Sure They Have The Very Best Data”

During Spokane visit, new summer wildfire outlook reinforces need for enhanced wildfire forecasting tools at NOAA

SPOKANE, WA – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) visited the National Weather Service’s Spokane Forecasting Office to review the region’s new summer wildfire outlook, tour the Eastern Washington facility and discuss her new bill to improve the tools available to wildfire forecasters and emergency responders.

Sen. Cantwell also viewed new fire and smoke forecasting equipment provided to the region by 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), including a ceilometer that will be installed at Spokane International Airport to provide advanced accurate smoke predictions. The BIL included historic investments in wildfire prevention, forecasting and suppression tools.

Sen. Cantwell delivered comments in a press conference alongside a panel of stakeholders, including a meteorologist, fire expert, emergency manager and clean air advocate. The latest National Interagency Fire Center wildfire forecast, which was publicly released today, predicts an elevated wildfire risk in Central and Eastern Washington in July and August.

“We know we will face a significant fire threat. Each year wildfires result in irreplaceable loss of life and homes and property. They destroy our crops and timber -- and obviously smoke damage,” Sen. Cantwell said. “Here at the Spokane National Weather Service, dedicated forecasters are constantly evaluating those weather conditions and the threat of fire. During last year's fire season, this office produced a record number of 1,193 spot forecasts needed to fight those fires. You cannot fight these fires without NOAA’s critical service. And when the wildfires occur, these brave men and women are deployed right along the first responders to ensure that the firefighters on the line have the best data and information they need to get the job done and to stay safe. We owe it to those firefighters to make sure that they have the very best data.”

“For many, many years, the National Weather Service has been an essential partner to emergency management in all phases of disaster preparedness,” said Spokane County Emergency Management Deputy Director Chandra Fox. “One of the specific issues in this bill that I am very excited about is the additional support being provided to our Incident Meteorologist program. Having the ability to have the meteorologists in the field with our fire personnel actually watching what is happening in that fire environment is key… A shift in wind direction or a drop in humidity can drastically change fire behavior, and mean the difference between containment and the fire making a run into a populated area.”

“Some suppression tactics (we can) utilize -- such as direct line construction, aircraft operations, and backfiring operations -- may not be available during periods of inclement weather due to safety. And so having an accurate and available forecast that's readily available gives us a view into those windows of opportunities so we can take those tactical opportunities to suppress the fire,” said Spokane County Fire District 8 Assistant Chief Chris Wyrobek.

“Summer’s almost here,” said Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency Executive Director Scott Windsor. “Some now refer to it as smoke season, unfortunately. Outdoor event planners, summer camp coordinators, childcare center directors, parents, coaches, employers and so many more rely on good quality forecasts during a wildfire smoke season to provide the most timely and accurate air quality forecasts to them, that are vital for the health and the well-being of our residents and visitors.” 

After the press conference, Sen. Cantwell viewed a demonstration from National Fire Weather Science and Dissemination Meteorologist Robyn Heffernan, who used the station’s existing wildfire system modeling technology to illustrate potential wildfire and smoke scenarios. Sen. Cantwell also toured the full facility, including the Doppler radar dish serving the region, and released a weather balloon with Incident Meteorologist John Fox.  

Two weeks ago, Sen. Cantwell introduced the Fire Ready Nation Act of 2022a bill to improve wildfire forecasting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) already performs vital fire season functions; this new bill would formalize and fund those duties, enhancing the agency’s capacity to help prevent and fight wildfires. Sen. Cantwell’s legislation would:

·       Establish a fire weather services program within NOAA;

·       Fund the research and acquisition of technology to better forecast wildfire conditions;

·       Deploy new tools to fight fires like unmanned drones that can gather chemical information and survey damage;

·       Codify the Incident Meteorologist Service (IMET), a group of forecasters that are deployed to fire lines and other disasters to provide real-time lifesaving forecasts to emergency responders;

·       Ensure that IMETs’ long deployments spent helping the specially-trained NOAA forecasters who embed with fire teams for weeks at a time receive fairer compensation.

Last year’s BIL included $8.25 billion for more than 20 federal programs to reduce fuel with prescribed burns and rebuild areas destroyed by wildfires. The package also included $5 billion to upgrade the nation’s grid infrastructure, reducing the risk of outdated equipment sparking destructive fires. $180 million of these funds went to NOAA, including $13.5 million in funding for 900 ceilometers that detect smoke in the atmosphere and $10 million for upgraded IMET laptops and weather instruments, like weather balloons used in fighting fires.

In 2021, 674,249 acres burned in wildfires, which is 40 percent above the 10-year average (407,449 acres). Drought and wildfires combined to cause an estimated to a $665 million loss to agricultural businesses in WA. 

Video of Sen. Cantwell’s speech can be viewed HERE and audio can be heard HERE, a transcript of Senator Cantwell’s remarks is available HERE.