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New NOAA research article details Colorado’s Marshall Fire

January 10, 2024

Analyzing the forecast, decision support, and new tools for the future

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently published an in-depth analysis of the Marshall Fire, which became the most expensive wildfire in Colorado’s history.

The fire, which started on December 30, 2021, rapidly escalated from a grass fire to a destructive suburban firestorm, destroying over 1,000 homes and several commercial properties in the Boulder suburbs of Louisville and Superior.

This comprehensive study, featured in the American Meteorological Society’s journal Weather and Forecasting, examines the unique meteorological conditions and the forecasting challenges posed by the event.

Unprecedented windstorm and forecasting challenges

NOAA scientists and meteorologists at the Boulder office scrutinized the “mountain wave” windstorm, a common phenomenon along the Rocky Mountains.

Lead author Stan Benjamin, a CIRES scientist at NOAA’s Global Systems Laboratory, highlighted the extraordinary duration of the hurricane-force winds, which played a critical role in the fire’s rapid spread.

“For the wind to keep going for that many hours, out of all the unique aspects of this storm, that was one maybe most important for that fire to spread the way it did,” Benjamin said.

Meteorologists faced significant challenges in forecasting this event.

While numerical weather models suggested high winds for December 30, it wasn’t until the evening of December 29 that a short-term model began producing consistent forecasts, enabling the issuance of a high-wind warning across Boulder County.

The onset of the firestorm

The fire began near Highway 93 and Marshall Road, quickly escalating due to the strong winds and dry conditions.

Despite the absence of a Red Flag Warning, a county-wide burn ban was initiated in Boulder County.

Paul Schlatter, the science and operations officer for the local National Weather Service forecast office, noted the lack of significant lulls in the wind during the fire, contrasting with historical windstorm patterns in the area.

Advancements in fire forecasting and readiness

The Marshall Fire has underscored the need for improved readiness and forecasting methods.

New tools, such as the Hourly Wildfire Potential Index from the Global Systems Laboratory, are expected to enhance fire weather condition awareness.

Researchers also suggested revising the strict relative humidity criteria for Red Flag Warnings and focusing more on the potential rate of fire spread, especially in extreme wind conditions.

Climate connection and future research

The study also delves into the climate aspects of the event.

Although the peak winds of the Marshall Fire were extreme, such intense windstorms have become less frequent over the past decades.

However, the risk of catastrophic wind-driven fires remains a concern.

Ongoing research aims to expand fire weather warning lead times and provide more real-time information in emergency situations.

For more information on this analysis, visit the NOAA Research website.

FSJA Comment

The Marshall Fire analysis by NOAA presents a critical examination of the interplay between extreme weather events and wildfire behavior.

This study not only provides valuable insights into the specific challenges faced during the Marshall Fire but also highlights broader issues relevant to fire forecasting and emergency management.

The introduction of new tools and methodologies, as discussed in the study, signifies a step forward in enhancing preparedness and response mechanisms for future fire events.

Moreover, the research underscores the importance of continuous advancement in weather modeling and fire prediction technologies, especially in the face of changing climate patterns.

Understanding the dynamics of such natural disasters is essential for developing effective strategies to mitigate their impact and protect communities.

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