Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How did we find out about the Cleveland County, OK fire?

The eastern Cleveland County fire last weekend was a big wakeup call for me about the most understated threat to our house and wellbeing.  I honestly wasn't thinking much about fire danger for the previous days prior to the fire.  But perhaps I should've been a bit more aware in the same way that we are for the more traditional severe weather around here.  After all, there were last year's fires to remember and the resurgent drought that really accelerated the drying of our trees within the last two weeks. As a note, Daphne was more aware than I considering the drought and the days fire danger. 

This fire day shouldn't have been surprise at all, just a disappointment that it was human-caused despite the forecasts.  First, the SPC highlighted the equivalent of a high risk in fire outlooks when they outlined central OK in a critical risk outlook.  The local NWS office hit us hard with a fire weather watch the previous day and then a red flag fire warning from the early morning.  The wording doesn't get stronger than what you see below.

The Storm Prediction Center's day 2 fire outlook for 2012-August-03. See that critical area that outlooked Oklahoma.  Subsequent forecasts didn't change.

The NWS Norman's red flag fire warning for 2012 August 03 issued early that morning.  The wording says, don't do anything that can start a fire!

Later that day, I could've simply looked up a couple popular fire weather indices to see that both were maxed out as high as possible.  Both the Low altitude Haines index  or the Atmospheric Severity Index for fires combine the temperature lapse rate aloft with available moisture.  When the lapse rate is high and the moisture low both of these indices go up.  But I didn't need to look at an index to tell me what I could plainly see from the morning sounding, the strong southwesterly winds, near all-time record high temperatures, low humidity and nearly dormant vegetation (and I mean trees!).  The day was going to be pretty volatile.
The low altitude Haines index map from 2012-August-03 18 UTC.   Available from http://www.spc.noaa.gov/exper/mesoanalysis/

The Atmospheric Severity index from 2012-August-03 20 UTC.  Available from http://www.spc.noaa.gov/exper/mesoanalysis/
 Clearly with such volatility in the forecast, we had perhaps two days to be set for a quick evacuation should a fire arise.  That amount of lead time could've allowed us to be in the SET to GO stages of the ascending level of readiness (Ready, Set, Go) in this website http://www.readyforwildfire.org/defensible_space.  We had been working on the 'Ready' part for some time.  For instance we had installed a metal roof, cleared the woods of low brush southwest of our house and cleared out some Cedar trees near the house.  But the SET to GO stages wasn't something in our minds until the evening of the 3rd when the huge wildfire erupted to several miles to our southeast.

When the fire started at noon, I wasn't thinking much of evacuation.  I was at work involved in another project while Daphne was involved with hers.  But after a few hours, and after several co-workers suggested that I look east, I decided to do so.  What I saw was quite amazing because I never saw a fire of this intensity.  The time lapse here shows more than enough to get the idea.  I drove home and by 7 pm it was apparent that evacuation might be necessary as winds started to back toward the southeast, the direction of the fire.  Now we were in a personalized warning response mode.  However we were still trapped in that mode of needing confirmation and wanting just a bit more information.

We had many sources of information.  After some days of reflection, I compiled sources of information that we used to help us with deciding whether or not to go.  I list some here with my opinions on how useful they were.

At first we heard about the local emergency management requesting NWS Norman to issue a fire warning.  This was serious.  The EMs don't typically ask for this unless they feel the fire is out of control and headed for people.  The Friday fire met those conditions and the NWS complied.  The locations were quite specific and well southeast of our house.  Because of this, we took note but thought the fire was not an imminent threat to us.  We did have friends living much more closely to the warning than we and we chatted on Facebook about the threat.

Second on the docket was the Fire Detection Map that Daphne found out about from a friend of ours (Mike Splitt).  We looked at it and used the MODIS imagery to show the current location of the fires.  Despite the imagery being slow to load, we were able to view a map much like the one below but at an earlier state (most of these fires were much smaller or nonexistent yet).  The map was well made but the problem was update frequency.  Depending on MODIS just doesn't cut it when we wanted frequent updates.  I could get more information just by looking outside and watching the plume.

The fire detection map from the Federal govt showing the aerial extent of Oklahoma fires based on MODIS satellite imagery on 2012 August 06.
Another useful product that we viewed was the short-term forecasts published by the NWS Norman.  For example on Friday evening, they expected a cold front to slide across us.  Their timing for the front's arrival was about 9 pm.  We expected northerly winds after the front would push the fire back onto itself - a good thing.  We later learned that this pushback wouldn't necessarily be that good because houses previously saved would be under threat again as the fire may burn previously unburnt vegetation.  However at the time, our theme was the front would halt the northward progression of the fire.  Our friends were much more desperate as their house was in the path of the fire and the front would save their house only if it arrived in time.  As it turned out the fire got to their latitude first and it was the huge firefighting effort that saved their neighborhood.  The forecast was a little generous in its timing when the front slowed down by a couple hours.

A graphical forecast of frontal positions issued by the NWS Norman during the late afternoon on August 3.
One of the most useful items I found was the real-time radar reflectivity overlaid on a high-resolution map on my phone.  This little app was created by a student at OU (Ross Kimes) that allowed me to track the location of the fire plume every 5 minutes.  I could tell immediately how vigorous the plume was.  As the evening progressed, the plume narrowed and became less vigorous as the fire began to 'lay down' for the night.  Make no mistake that the winds ahead of the front were still strong and the temperature was at record levels for the hour.  This fire was still a big danger but at least there was some hope that neighborhoods wouldn't be consumed as long as the firefighters were actively fighting.

The radar was a great tool as long as it could detect the plume.  But by 11 pm the plume all but disappeared as the fire weakened.  Now while the weakened plume indicated the fire was less active, it was still burning and moving.  But by then the radar was useless.

I have to admit I look at Facebook quite frequently but perhaps I was almost obsessed with it this evening.  Daphne and I weren't capable of looking at everything but with our friends posting constantly, we found out about information sources we couldn't have otherwise.  I commend Peter Laws, Shannon Keys and Tim Vasquez for finding out stuff that I didn't know existed.  Peter's great at tracking down radio frequencies while Tim and Shannon are internet mavens.  We offered some useful info too and between us, we were much greater than as individuals.  It was this information channel in which we heard that the firefighters thought that 108th Ave. might be at risk as the winds backed in the evening.  Consequently, our thoughts of evacuation  accelerated.  We also heard from Peter that police were coming to our neighborhood door to door to encourage us to evacuate.

One of the more interesting sites that Peter shared was an on-the-fly, and totally grass-roots, map-based fire map produced by Shane Young and Bob Fritchie.  They actually independently started logging emergency radio reports and then found out about each other.  After combining resources, an incredibly detailed map of radio reports emerged to become available on Google Maps for everyone to view.  There isn't a name for it as far as I know so for lack of a better one, it's the Cleveland County Fire Map.  Now I could visually see what I could previously infer from radar - the extent of the burn area.  Shane and Bob updated other interesting tidbits including evacuation zones, helicopter water sources, and firefighting activities.  They even wrote down what the firefighters thought of the fire behavior.  Simply put this is an amazing labor of love with an amazingly useful dimension.  We used this to watch as Tim and Shannon's neighborhood was literally being surrounded by fire.
The Cleveland County Fire Map as of 2012-August-06 at 2300 UTC.
Perhaps the only more useful information sources than the Cleveland County Fire Map was to hear directly from the source.  I had installed a phone app called "Emergency Radio" that allowed me a drop onto the Cleveland County Fire frequencies.  There was no better real-time source of information since I heard everything the fire fighters and incident command said with perhaps only a 30 sec delay through the internet.  Daphne also accessed the same source through an online site like radio reference.    With the app both of us had it on continuously from Friday afternoon through today.  I had it on when we were evacuees residing Greg Stumpf's place, or at the park or Jimmy's Egg.  It was like listening to a drama except this was real and anything that was said was absolutely critical information.

Having said all the positive things about live radio feeds is that sometimes it's too easy to lose the awareness of the forest amongst the proverbial trees.  The firefighters were understandably extremely terse with their communication and there were times it was hard to figure out the big picture, especially after being away from it for awhile.  That's why the Cleveland County Fire Map was so useful.  It brought back some context.

Finally, what got us out the door was the friendly visit by the Norman PD as they went door-to-door Friday night near midnight.  We were already packed and waiting for a trigger.  Given the possibility that the fire might threaten 108th Ave., our escape route, we decided to go.  Our decision was aided by friends offering up to stay at their places (thanks to Mansel's, Greg Stumpf, Mark Sessing, and a few others for their offers).  We wound up staying overnight at Greg's place, along with the cats etc.

Of course we used more traditional sources of information such as the phone.  But to be honest, we didn't use that as much as I could imagine a decade ago. 

Finally as an epilogue, there are some notable information sources that I don't have here and wound up disappointing.  First of all, the TV media was great at showing dramatic footage from their helicopters.  But I was disappointed by their lack of information about the fire location and evacuation statuses.  They could've easily tapped into the radio frequencies, stringers and reporters to generate a map too.  But I didn't see one and the gap was filled by two people with no budget, only motivation (power of the internet).  Apparently Shane and Bob also found the TV media somewhat disappointing.  Twitter was also disappointment.  Yes there are the #okwx and #okfire hashtags.  But they were filled by people understandably concerned with the welfare of relatives and friends.  And sometimes there were just redundant retweets.  The only updates to the fire came from the NWS, and that was only to update watches and warnings - a temporal frequency well short of what we needed.  Finally, there was no official government avenue of information of which we were aware that could've told us when evacuation areas would be reopened.  I think the local government needs to get on Twitter or some kind of messaging service so that displaced people can find out these things. Perhaps their information was channeled into a more traditional line of communication like broadcast radio.
Now, that's not to say that we could've done better.  After all perhaps we needed to turn on old-fashioned radio and select a good station.  Perhaps local stations were getting all of the official information on fire locations and evacuation updates.  For a local event like this, radio doesn't have the edge.  But if power started going out and the emergency grew in size, the first loss of communication modes will inevitably be the more advanced ones like 3 or 4G and wireless.  Radio's still the backup, whether it's direct access to emergency bands through a scanner or radio stations.  I still have to remember that.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Oklahoma fires of August 2012

The summer of 2011 was bad for Oklahoma but the summer of 2012 is rapidly catching up.  In fact the fires of August 3 were more intense than anything I've seen in 2011.  Yesterday a fire blew up on the east side of Slaughterville, OK around noon and quickly grew as it spread north along 120th SE. Ave.  When I came out to see the fire, it sported one large pyrocumulus on top of a plume-like updraft reminiscent of the east Noble fire in 2011 September 03.  The only difference is that this fire looked much more likely to be a candidate for a firestorm considering the much stronger plume-like updraft.  
A picture of the east Norman wildfire on 2012 August 03 1620 CST (2220 UTC).  The fire plume is about 13 mi east of my location at the National Weather Center.

With a plume like that, it's no surprise that it showed up on radar.  For much of the day the fire appeared as an oval of 25-40 dBZ echoes much like viewed below.  On satellite the plume exploded in the late afternoon as it spread mostly east.  Curiously there was a small appendage that formed and peeled off to the southeast.  
On the left, a base reflectivity image from the Twin Lakes radar  at 2228 UTC showing the reflectivity echo associated with the smoke and ash plume of the east Norman fire.  On the right is the closest GOES visible satellite image of the fire within the circle.  Other fires were burning near Chickasha tot he west and up by Mannford, OK in northeastern OK.
 That small appendage to the southeast shows up very well in the time lapse I made of the event from 2146 - 2310 UTC.  About 10 seconds into the video, the fire must've fed off some especially rich fuel sources that pumped a much stronger updraft into the air and raised the equilibrium level that much higher.  Check it out below.

At the end of the video you may have seen a balloon launch from the small shack in the lower right part of the time lapse.  This launch shows up in the sounding SKEWT chart below.  The first thing of interest about the sounding is the exceptionally deep layer of steep lapse rates rising up to at least 5 km. Surface temperatures were exceptionally hot at near 110 deg F.  Looking at the winds helps explain that southeastward pulse in the cloud when the strong updraft pulses took off and then encountered a layer of northwesterly winds at the 500 mb level.  So this pyrocumulus cloud appeared to be quite high.  In fact, I used the Theodolite app in my phone to measure the height of the cloud.  I estimated that the plume was about 13 mi to my east which is how far 120 th to 132nd Ave is to the east.  I got a cloud top height of 5.4 mi or around 8.6 km above the ground.  With that information I could overlay the first picture in this blog on top of the sounding from the National Weather Center and it shows clearly that the cloud reached well into the northwesterly winds in the sounding.  Also at that elevation the cloud should've been nearly -20 deg C!  Wait, that's cold enough for significant glaciation.  Yet the time lapse didn't show the top turning to ice.   But it was close I'm sure.  A couple hours later, I heard that Tim Vasquez, just south of Lake Thunderbird and northeast of the fire, reported rain!   I heard other reports of rain too in that area.  So this pyrocumulus was quite close to turning into a pyrocumulonimbus!

A SKEWT plot of the Norman, OK sounding from 2012 August 04, 00 UTC.  The balloon was actually launched around 2304 UTC.  

The Norman sounding from above was overlaid on the picture I shot at about time the fire produced the maximum cloud top height around 2220 UTC.  I matched the height of 8.6 km to roughly the same position in the sounding.  
At the end of the time lapse the plume weakened somewhat as the fire began to feel the effects of a cooling boundary layer.  I drove eastward to my house (uncomfortably close to the fire) and by then the fire was producing mostly a wind-driven plume with a much lower maximum height.  It was still producing pyrocumulus then but not nearly with the vertical extent as before.  By night, the fire was purely a wind-driven plume as the nocturnal picture below shows.  By the way at nightfall I was smelling smoke even though the main plume was to the east.
A picture of the east Norman fire from Post Oak and east of 108th Ave. SE around 2320 UTC.

A picture of the east Norman fire plume seen just above the trees taken from the west side of Lake Thunderbird at 2056 UTC or 2012 August 04, 0256 UTC.  The eerie orange glow was fortunately located far enough southeast of us but still we were suggested to evacuate shortly thereafter.  
The fire behavior that I've seen on this day has exceeded anything I've experienced in central Oklahoma.  I've seen pyrocumulus the previous year but nothing compared to this.  Certainly I've not heard of a fire producing a rain shower such as this one did.  Perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised that we're passing into new territory.  The temperatures over the past week have also exceeded anything I remember before.  In the previous two days the temperatures have reached above 110 deg F.  The Norman mesonet site has breached 113 deg F.  That's tying the all-time record max temperature at the Oklahoma City airport.  Then on this day the airport itself tied its all-time high temperature record.  What's more, this day was the hottest day ever because the morning maximum low temperatures were hotter than ever before.  Some areas couldn't get below the upper 80's F!
Maximum temperatures from the Oklahoma mesonet sites on 2012 August 02.

A surface plot on 2012 August 12 at 22 UTC with the area in orange exceeding 110 deg F.

Maximum temperature record tied at Oklahoma City on 2012 August 03.

With these unprecedented temperatures, the burn index was higher than I've seen last year.  The 10 hour dead fuel moisture was exceptionally low.  Any other fire index that has been made also showed unusually favorable values around here.

Two fire parameters produced by the Oklahoma Climate Survey, the burning index above and the 10 hour dead fuel moisture below for 23 UTC 2012 August 03.

Another aspect of these fires that I've never seen before is that we've now finished the second day of this fire with little hope that it'll be contained before sunrise.  Seeing two days of active fire is unusual to say the least.  Unfortunately that means the fire has consumed a large amount of terrain and many residents have become victims to its persistence.  I know of several friends that still don't know the fate of their houses.  Now the fire has entered into the Clear Bay area of Lake Thunderbird and also is spreading toward Little Axe.

A real-time fire map made available based on reports received from the Cleveland County fire authorities.
And finally, this fire is nowhere near the size of the one east of Mannsford, OK.  That fire has exploded today with a 10 mi long front and a plume that has actually created cumulonimbi, and quite likely thunderstorms, as the atmosphere has destabilized ahead of a cold front.  This fire has possibly reached 40,000 acres in size.
The composite reflectivity image from the KINX radar at 2012 August 04 2152 UTC showing nearly 50 dBZ echoes downstream of the Mannford, OK fire.  The corresponding GOES visible image showed cumulonimbi embedded within the fire plume.  Other high-based cumulonimbi started to initiate along the front to the north.