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As Others Flee Wildfires, A Team In California Races Toward Them To Study The Weather


As others flee wildfires, a team in California races towards them. Matt Brewer is part of that team. It's called the Fire Weather Research Lab at San Jose State University. He's a firefighter and a scientist. In fact, his team has the only weather researchers in the U.S. certified as firefighters. Welcome.

MATT BREWER: Thanks for having me on.

CHANG: I understand you have been right next to some of the biggest fires in Northern California. Can you just describe for me what you've seen?

BREWER: I've seen some really intense stuff. I've seen the flames reaching the tallest trees you've ever seen, probably flame lengths of over 100 feet easily. I've seen fire jump more than a kilometer ahead of a fire front and just start new fires and continue on down a slope. There's been a lot of wild stuff in my two years here at San Jose State.

CHANG: Explain how studying the weather helps prepare people for future fires.

BREWER: One thing in particular we are looking for is to see burning embers of fire within the smoke plume and seeing how far and how fast they travel, as well as collecting samples of them on the ground to get a general size and shape of them.

CHANG: And by tracking how far and how fast these embers are traveling, how does that help inform how future fires will move?

BREWER: We can use some of this data to advance current models of fire progression because these embers are very important for predicting the progression of the fire - on wind-driven fires especially because these embers can start spot fires downrange of the burning fire front and even start houses on fires if they land in gutters, on roofs, et cetera.

CHANG: So the more accurately you update these models based on, say, like, the movement of embers in previous fires, the more people can prepare in what ways?

BREWER: Having these updated models and having better prediction of the fire will help managers better coordinate evacuations, not having people evacuate if they don't need to, and be able to have people evacuate even when the fire's a couple miles from my house.

CHANG: Well, you know, we keep hearing that these wildfires, they're getting bigger and bigger, more frequent, that this is just the new normal. Is that true? I mean, what do we need to do to turn the corner on this?

BREWER: The problem is - the issue becomes fire is a natural thing that should occur, especially in California, on a regular basis. But as humans start to push into the wildland-urban interface, you get problems of people not wanting prescribed burns and you get overgrowth of vegetation. And that is also exacerbated by climate change. You get extra drying. Rains come later in the year. So the fuels dry out more. And we'll have to see in the future climate how weather sets up to get these wind events like we've been having in the last couple weeks.

CHANG: I mean, obviously, this is really dangerous work. What keeps pulling you back straight into these crises? I mean, it's for research, but this is really dangerous research.

BREWER: It's really exhilarating to be there. Like, when we first went to the Kincade Fire on the first night of ignition, being on the ground watching the fire collecting brand new data with our new radar, it's just a really exhilarating feeling. And also the fact that I hope to one day use this data to improve current models and help have a better understanding of fires and fire prediction and things along those lines.

CHANG: Matt Brewer is a member of the Fire Weather Research Lab at San Jose State University. Thank you very much for joining us today.

BREWER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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