National Weather Service Incident Meteorologists (IMETs) are typically sent to remote locations in support of wildfires as well as other incidents which can potentially involve environmental hazards. During wildfire season, or when other incidents require localized weather information, IMETs can in a moment's notice, pack their bags, and quickly deploy to an incident command site.
Once onsite, IMETs are key members of the incident command teams and provide continuous meteorological support for the duration of the incident.
IMETs help fire control specialists from federal, state and local agencies by interpreting weather information, assessing its impact on the fire, and helping develop strategies to best fight the fires, while keeping both fire fighters and the general public safe.
Why is Fire Weather Important?
Once a fire starts, accurate up-to-date weather information for that specific fire area becomes critical. Weather, along with fuel type and topography, are the most significant factors influencing the severity and behavior of wildfires. Fire intensity and rate of spread are directly related to meteorological parameters such as temperature, humidity and wind speed. Long term drought conditions can also contribute to the number and intensity of wildfires. Wildfires are capable of creating their own unique weather. Pyrocumulus clouds (See picture below) can form over the top of a fire due to its intense heat. These clouds produce little or no precipitation, but produce strong and gusty winds that can have a significant impact on fire spread and fire fighter safety.
In most years around 3 to 6 new IMETs undergo training. To become an IMET, NOAA National Weather Service meteorologists must complete a thorough training program, which includes course work and field training. Participation in the IMET program is voluntary.
The course work assists IMET trainees in gaining knowledge of fuel types and fire behavior. IMETs and IMET trainees work together to set up equipment used at an incident, participate in survival training, conduct fire weather briefings; and share information and experiences on meso/microscale meteorology, best practices at an incident and fire weather forecasting techniques. IMET trainees begin work on a taskbook; which requires the completion of more than 150 tasks, and complete it by going on at least two fire assignments which total 20 days duration or more working along side certified IMETs.
IMETs In Action
Available IMETs located closest to an incident are typically called first; however, IMETs nationwide can be called in if backups are needed. Deployment decisions are also based on IMET availability and previous IMET experience in that area.
Once an IMET receives dispatch orders, their home/office work schedule must be quickly adjusted to cover their duties, travel arrangements made and equipment/provisions packed. The average time from dispatch order to arrival on scene anywhere in the country is around 12 to 24 hours.
On most incidents, IMETs can serve up to 14 consecutive days before being relieved by another IMET. Their days are long — waking up well before sunrise and working late into the night. Their jobs are both physically and mentally demanding and job satisfaction can be very rewarding.
IMETs are stationed with the incident command team at a base camp near or a few miles from the incident. IMETs and other incident personnel often sleep in tents or vehicles at the base camp, but it is not always a typical camping experience. The base camp is often infiltrated with smoke and ash from surrounding wildfires. It is usually in remote locations where electricity is supplied by noisy diesel generators, there is no indoor plumbing and supplies must be trucked in daily.
IMETs work closely with the incident command team, especially the Fire Behavior Analyst from land management agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. IMETs assist the Fire Behavior Analyst in interpreting the weather to help predict fire behavior. The weather and resulting fire behavior have a significant impact on the team's approach to fighting the fire. IMETs also provide briefings at numerous planning meetings and answer any other weather-related questions the come up throughout the day. Coordination of fire weather conditions is conducted between the IMET, the local NOAA National Weather Service office, and any other IMETs on nearby fires to ensure the best products and services are being delivered.
The IMET also gives a weather briefing to all the fire crews. The IMET describes the expected weather conditions and any potential weather hazards. Other duties the IMETs are responsible for throughout the day include maintaining a weather watch, issuing weather alerts, ensuring weather equipment is functioning, conducting media interviews, providing briefings for the general public, and assisting with fire investigations.
Each IMET uses wireless/cellular communications and laptop computer to access weather information. Known as the "All Hazards Meteorological Response System" (or AMRS for short), this system allows IMETs to become a "mobile" extension of the local NOAA National Weather Service office. The laptops have special software allowing IMETs to view all the data they need to prepare fire weather forecasts. IMETs also use wind tracking weather balloons, the land management agencies' Fire Remote Automated Weather Station (or IRAWS) and other meteorological tools to gather weather information. IMETs carry personal protection equipment, including fire-resistant clothes, fire shelter and a first aid kit — the same emergency equipment fire crews carry.
The IMET Mission
National Weather Service IMETs have been assisting with wildfire suppression efforts since 1914, but today they are being used in other weather sensitive situations, such as HAZMAT, oil and chemical spills, national security and natural disaster relief efforts. IMETs have been called upon to provide onsite support for the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, for the U.S. Coast Guard on large oil spills such as Deepwater Horizon and for national security events such as the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and Super Bowl. IMETs provide critical and timely weather information anytime and anywhere a disaster strikes.