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00000176-d8fc-dce8-adff-faff71c90000Idaho's wildfire season is here, and that means you're going to be hearing a lot of firefighting jargon to describe what's going on.We put together this list of key firefighting terms you're likely to hear in the next few months.GlossaryHotshots: A highly trained hand crew of wildland firefighters that works on the ground to contain a blaze. Crews usually operate in 20-person teams, and are sent in first to deal with the worst fire conditions on short notice. Hotshots have a high level of physical fitness. They can carry up to 50 pounds along with a chainsaw and shovel. There are more than 100 hotshot crews around the country, and the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise coordinates the crews.Hand crew: Wildland firefighters that could have different levels of training. They work on the ground with hand tools like shovels, chainsaws and axes. They dig fire lines (also called "firebreaks") to try and get the fire under control.Smokejumper: An elite firefighter that parachutes into remote wildland fires. They work to suppress and put out fires before they become a bigger problem, and can adapt to quickly changing situations. Smokejumpers have to be fit and highly trained. They carry heavy packs and protective suits and work in mountainous terrain. Idaho has three smokejumping bases in Boise, McCall and Grangeville.Fire lines or firebreaks: Usually about 10-12 feet wide, fire lines are cut with shovels and axes to contain and suppress a blaze. Hand crews -- including hotshots -- will dig lines and clear out brush so the fire will get choked off without fuel.Containment levels: The agency that manages a fire will say how "contained" a fire is. At 100 percent containment a fire isn't out. That means a complete fire line has been dug around the fire. A contained fire can quickly become out of control again with a shift in weather.Controlled fire: This is when a wildfire is considered out. Here's how the BLM office in Idaho Falls describes it: "Think of a container -- say, a mason jar. A fire is contained when it's all 'bottled in,' like in a container. The fire may still be burning, but if a distinct fire line is built around the entire perimeter so that there is no chance for the fire to escape or spot over outside the line, then the fire fighters declare the fire 'contained.' "Human caused: This means someone accidentally or intentionally caused a fire. This could be from a discarded cigarette, a embers from a campfire, or even sparks from a truck along a forested highway. As Smokey says, nine times out of 10, a wildfire is human-caused.Fire danger: This is a rating system from the U.S. Forest Service that helps predict how likely a wildfire could start in an area. It takes into account the weather forecast, terrain and personnel. "Low" means a blaze would likely not spread, while "moderate" means a fire could start but could be contained. "High" to "very high" means fires can catch and spread easily, while "extreme" means the conditions are so difficult and fast-changing that fighting the blaze directly is rare.Red flag warning: These warning are issued by regional National Weather Service offices, and help firefighting management teams understand the weather-related risks for fire starts. Drought and low humidity mixed with windy conditions usually spell a red flag warning. Burning bans sometimes come along with these warnings.Complex: Two or more larger wildfires in the same general area. A complex is managed by a unified team of firefighters.Air attack: Usually used during the initial stages of a small blaze, or as a suppression tool during large fires. Air attacks can drop fire retardant or water to help support hand and engine crews. Multi-engine or heavy air tankers, single-engine air tankers, and helicopters are the three most common types of aircraft that can be used. Multi-engine tankers carry the most retardant, while helicopters (or helitankers) can make more precise but smaller drops.Fire retardant: Also known as slurry, these USDA-approved chemicals are dropped by aircraft over wildfires that management teams believe could grow and become dangerous. It's often used to protect private property. A 2010 ruling from the U.S. District Court in Montana raised questions about its environmental effects.Incident management teams: Operating from level one through five, these teams of firefighters can be sent around the country to suppress fires. Type 1 and 2 IMT's often work on the most difficult and dangerous fires, and can include local firefighting resources.ResourcesWe also pulled together these key resources where you can find up-to-date information about wildfires.The National Interagency Fire Center coordinates fire management teams around the country, and is based in Boise. This year, NIFC predicted a higher level of fire danger in Idaho forests, while the grassland should get a bit of a break.The Bureau of Land Management's site will update Idahoans about fire restrictions on public land.InciWeb updates fire information around the country, giving handy info about road closures during the summer travel season. You'll also find maps, photos, and growth potential for a particular fire.And if you tweet, consider following these organizations and agencies for fire updates in 140 characters.

As Wildfires Become More Unpredictable, Fire Modelers Work To Catch Up

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Stuart Palley
/
U.S Forest Service
The North Complex Fire burning in Northern California

Firefighters have long studied how fires behave to figure out where they’re going and how to keep people safe. But wildfires are becoming more unpredictable.

Decades of poor forest management along with development in fire-prone areas and the climate crisis are making wildfires more destructive. Some of these hot, massive blazes even create their own microclimate that’s not as affected by external weather (called a plume-driven or plume-dominated fires).

One fire scientist based in Montana, Mark Finney, compared these firestorms to the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II, as he explained in a recent article in Wired.

“So a certain amount of information was developed during those days (about these kinds of firestorms), but then the interest died off. We didn’t really have too many of these fires in the United States for many, many decades. And so now it seems like people are more and more aware that these kinds of fires can happen,” he told the Mountain West News Bureau.

A consortium of fire researchers called Pyregence is hopeful it can predict where these fires might crop up.

"If you look at how models are developed, they’re built off of historic trends. And you look at our future conditions, they don’t match up with our historic trends," said David Saah, a professor at the University of San Francisco and one of the Pyregence researchers.

However, Saah says the group is working fast.

"We don’t have time to wait five years," he said. "So beta versions for the near-real-term stuff is already up and running. It was already used in this fire season. It’s already saved some lives and communities."

Much of the group’s forecasting focused on California this year, but Saah expects it to spread throughout the continental U.S. in the years to come.

However, Finney in Montana says that while modeling is good, there’s only so much it can achieve.

“The big problem occurs because with some kinds of fire behaviors that have, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, beyond the reach of any kind of predictive modeling,” he said.

For example, he said those large, plume-dominated fires “involve atmospheric coupling and dynamics where very tall pyroconvective storms, such as basically thunderstorms, occur because of the heating at the surface from the fire. Those are meteorological phenomena as much as a fire phenomena. And they're very, very difficult to predict faster than real time.”

So Finney said the most important part of modeling isn’t predicting what a large fire is going to do, but how to mitigate the potential for a large fire, how to anticipate them and how to be safe around them.

“Modeling, in a predictive sense once the fire's been going, offers us very, very little bang for the buck. There's just not much that we can do at that point,” he said.

So the way forward, he said, is still largely through land management and promoting healthy fire use around the West. When a massive area hasn’t seen fire for decades, Finney said there’s little to stop a fire there from getting bigger and bigger.

“Suppression is largely ineffective on large fires when the weather is very dry and there’s very dry wind events,” he said. “So the only proactive way to deal with this is through managing these lands, understanding the role that land plays in the vegetation dynamics, and being tolerant of having fire as a partner in managing lands.”

“Fire’s really as much of an ally as it is an enemy in these cases and we’ve failed to really form an alliance with it and use it as a tool as people for thousands of years before us had done.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.