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.


  1. Jim,

    Of all the posts I have seen you make in your time on the Interwebs, this one is your most shining moment (strictly my opinion, likely to be dead wrong! ;-) ). So revealing, so thoughtful, so insightful as to your train of thought, and so well-documented as to why. Every local government official, EM, and EM wanna-be like me needs to read this. Given that two volunteers did way better than the media and government officials (by your account) in disseminating information is terrible. I'm glad you found Radioreference.com; they are a great source for raw information from volunteers who put their police scanner (and other things) online for free. I have a police scanner myself...actually, two of them...and when the shooting happened at NIU, in my room under the desk hiding, I knew there were at least 3 or 4 fatalities while the media was reporting that there *might* be injuries. Get a scanner that can handle digital...and trunking. This is a requirement in those areas that are getting it installed. Many are getting those new systems with the FCC requirement to narrowband their radios by the end of the year.

    As for the media, they barely have enough news staff these days due to budget cutbacks to cover even routine things like city council meetings. When you throw a disaster at them, a chopper or a live truck with ONE person goes out. At major market stations, they now have only one person to:

    1. Drive the live truck
    2. Hoist the satellite or microwave antenna, and lock the signal to the station's receive antenna
    3. Get out the camera and lights, hook it up to the video switcher, and turn on all equipment to make it work
    4. Point the camera correctly, using a monitor (or not)
    5. Use a cell phone to call into the station so they can hear a live feed from the anchors

    By that time, a new street can be burning, and oh yes, that's before any actual news is covered! Radio is in far worse shape: most stations are automated after 7 PM; small stations may not have anyone live except in the morning drive, or at all!

    For those with iPhones, get the "S.R Deluxe" (aka Scanner Radio Deluxe, but search by the initials) in major metro and suburban areas (and some rural areas too!) if you cannot afford a scanner; it's free, but again, remember, if the Internet goes out, so does your scanner feed. A $200 scanner gets you what you need if you are in disaster-prone areas such as Oklahoma (tornadoes, wildfires, fuel explosions). You can even listen in on the power company chatter to see how close they are to you and what they are working on.

    AM/FM radio always has the edge, if they staff up to handle it. That's the way it was, until cable/satellite hit and radio listenership declined...and then, of course, the Internet hit. They could have shined here. And to answer that question...


    Anyway, nice job, Jim...well done!

  2. Thanks for your comment Gilbert. I may consider adding a scanner to my bag.