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Cantwell visits Spokane National Weather Service office to push for firefighting legislation

June 1, 2022 Updated Wed., June 1, 2022 at 8:11 p.m.

Senator Maria Cantwell, left, releases a weather balloon with Jon Fox, an Incident Meteorologist during a visit to the National Weather Service’s Spokane Forecasting Office on Wednesday in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Senator Maria Cantwell, left, releases a weather balloon with Jon Fox, an Incident Meteorologist during a visit to the National Weather Service’s Spokane Forecasting Office on Wednesday in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Sen. Maria Cantwell visited the National Weather Service’s Spokane office on Wednesday to discuss legislation that would give the organization more funding for their efforts in fighting and tracking wildfires.

The bill introduced by Cantwell last month, known as the Fire Ready Nation Act of 2022, is a bipartisan effort to allocate more funding to the weather service for better equipment, higher pay and the development of new technologies. Co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, the legislation would build on previous funding included in the $1.3 trillion infrastructure bill passed by lawmakers earlier this year.

The weather service plays a critical role during wildfire season as offices track weather conditions to assist firefighting agencies. Factors such as precipitation, soil moisture and wind conditions help determine potential risks, as well as the path of active fires. The NWS also tracks the smoke from those blazes, helping public health officials understand the threat to the citizens in their region.

At the Spokane office outside of Airway Heights, meteorologists work at desks, each with a semicircle of monitors, tracking weather conditions and wildfire behavior in real time. Satellite images and forecast models flash across the many screens.

Cantwell witnessed their work firsthand, following a press conference that featured officials from Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, Spokane County Emergency Management and local firefighting agencies.

“Here at the Spokane National Weather Service, dedicated forecasters are constantly evaluating those weather conditions and the threat of fire,” Cantwell said. “During last year’s fire season, this office produced a record number of 1,193 spot forecasts needed to fight those fires.”

“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,” Cantwell continued. “We owe it to those firefighters to make sure that they have the very best data.”

The weather service employees sent to active fires to help determine the best way to attack the blazes are known as incident meteorologists. Jon Fox is one of three incident meteorologists working in the state of Washington.

“When we get to a fire, we’re essentially there to provide all the weather intel for that area,” Fox said. “So let’s say it’s a 10,000-acre fire, we’re responsible for the weather revolving around that 10,000 acres.”

In 2021, Fox and his peers were sent on 12 assignments, working a collective 156 days in the field.

“Typically speaking, what will happen is your day begins at, say, six in the morning or so,” Fox said. “We will brief the fire crews that are going to be going out that day to actually fight the fire on the ground, whether it’s digging lines or chopping down trees. We give them a weather briefing as far as what sort of weather they can expect for the day.”

Fox said they look at things like thunderstorms, which can produce erratic winds and change the direction of the fire spread. He will radio out to fire crews so they can take appropriate actions as conditions change throughout the day. He and his peers work closely with fire behavior analysts to figure out how the weather will interact with the fire, and if he has the opportunity, he will send up weather balloons to collect more data.

“It’s a lot of work; it’s really long hours, but certainly rewarding because you do get to interface with these people,” Fox said. “When I’m in the office doing forecasts, we’re kind of pushing a button and sending it out to the world and you don’t get instant feedback. But when you’re at a fire, if you blow a forecast, you suddenly hear about it the next day, or if you nail a forecast, they’ll tell you that very day that you did a great job.

“So it’s just the instant feedback sort of thing, and the fact that what you’re doing actually helps people do their job.”

One facet of the bill would address compensation limits for incident meteorologists, while raising their pay to be more equitable with the federal responders mobilized when a fire breaks out. The pay caps for incident meteorologists limit how much they can earn in a year, therefore limiting the number of days they can be in the field assisting fire crews.

Fox said the proposed higher pay caps will have the biggest affect on incident meteorologists living in states like California, where the fire season is longer. Sometimes, incident meteorologists get close to their cap and are not able to respond even though their services are still needed.

“I think that’s one of the biggest wins of this new legislation, is it would allow them to stay out longer and serve their areas as much as they can, you know, up to the new pay cap limit,” Fox said.

Not only will the extra cash flow increase compensation for folks like Fox, it will also help them issue warnings much more quickly, said Andy Brown, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Funding for drones, smoke sensors and higher computer processing will lead to more accurate models on how wildfires and resulting smoke are behaving – letting firefighters and citizens alike know what to expect.

Brown said the funding will help the weather service fill in any holes in their current efforts, while improving the infrastructure already in place.

The proposed bill would allocate $55 million to the weather service next year and then increase over the next five years, reaching $200 million by 2027.

The bill has bipartisan support with the endorsement from Sullivan. Cantwell, a Democrat, is the chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee.

“She wants to know how the bill is going to affect what we do, and we sent an invitation to her to come out to a fire at some point,” Fox said. “She seems really interested in this sort of thing, so it’s really encouraging that she seems to have our back and is interested in this.”

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