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Sept. 29, 2004 - An assessment was released today of NOAA's National Weather Service forecast services provided before, during and after the catastrophic wildfires that hit California late last year. It showed successful coordination between several forecast offices of NOAA's National Weather Service (NWS) and emergency officials. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Wildfires hit Southern California from late October through early November 2003 becoming one of the state's costliest natural disasters. The fourteen wildfires, driven by strong Santa Ana winds, consumed 3,600 homes and 740,000 acres of land early last fall. Twenty-two deaths were attributed to the blazes. After the fires, the bare ground was prone to flooding and mudslides when heavy rain fell.

As this event unfolded, NOAA's National Weather Service met the forecast challenges associated with the conditions leading to the onset of the fires, fire containment and the hydrological concerns in the aftermath.

"Due to the magnitude of this event, NOAA's National Weather Service formed a service assessment team to examine the forecast and warning services provided to land managers, fire control personnel, emergency planners, media and public," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, director of NOAA's National Weather Service. "Service assessments provide a valuable contribution to ongoing efforts by the National Weather Service to improve the quality, timeliness and value of our products and services."

Assisting the efforts of land management agencies and fire control personnel were three fire-centered forecasting divisions of NOAA. Fire weather experts at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., issued national Fire Weather Outlook products highlighting areas most vulnerable to new and continued wildfires.

Incident Meteorologists (IMETs) were stationed along the fires' front lines providing valuable on-site weather observations for fire crews on the ground. Weather Service Forecast Offices in San Diego and Los Angeles supported the IMETs and issued Fire Weather Watches, Red Flag Warnings and related high wind warnings.

The combination of these NWS products and services resulted in excellent advance notification of a critical fire weather situation before the onset of the wildfire emergency and support for fire fighters and land management agencies during the event. Several best practices were identified.

The report also identified the following recommendations for improvement:

  • Some confusion was created by the issuance of a Red Flag Warning on October 29 for strong onshore winds and low relative humidity downwind of the wildfires, since most Southern Californians associate red flag events with strong northeast Santa Ana, or offshore winds. Recommendations included working with land management agencies and other partners to clarify red flag criteria and provide outreach and educational opportunities to ensure such criteria are understood.
  • While Fire Weather Forecasts (FWFs) are issued twice daily during the fire season and are not typically updated after the 3:30 p.m. local issuance time, FWFs should be updated when observational and/or short term model guidance suggests the current forecast is or will be substantially in error.
  • Some requests for IMETs and spot forecasts were delayed. It was recommended that NWS and partner agencies identify improved and consistent ways to ensure such delays are minimized.

NOAA's National Weather Service is the primary source of weather data, forecasts and warnings for the United States and its territories. NOAA's National Weather Service operates the most advanced weather and flood warning and forecast system in the world, helping to protect lives and property and enhance the national economy.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources.

EDITORS NOTE: Copies of the entire Service Assessment report are available on-line at To obtain a hard copy, please contact NWS Public Affairs, (301) 713-0622.

Media contacts:

Greg Romano or Chris Vaccaro - National Weather Service (301) 713-0622

Related Web sites:

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  Page last modified: 11-Mar-2010 9:31 AM