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Incident Meteorologist Works To Keep Fire Crews Safe


All right. We have been covering some massive wildfires that have been scorching the western United States for weeks now. And while much of the focus has been here in California, fires have also affected other states, including Colorado, which has seen more than 60,000 acres burn. KUNC's Rae Ellen Bichell takes us to Pueblo, Colo., to meet a meteorologist who specializes in fire.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Meteorologist Makoto Moore has this box always at hand.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. So we got a black plastic crate.

BICHELL: Oh, that's a balloon.

MAKOTO MOORE: Yeah. This is the balloon right here. This is the instrument packet that hangs off the bottom of it.

BICHELL: Plus, something that looks like a handheld fan for temperature, wind speed and direction and a bunch more - these are the tools of an incident meteorologist. They're like the paramedics of weather. When firefighters head out to quash a wildfire, someone like Moore often goes with them to make sure unexpected changes in the weather don't make the blaze worse and put the firefighters at risk.

MOORE: It's challenging. It's stressful.

BICHELL: There's a lot of reasons Moore goes there in person rather than watching weather from the office. One of those reasons happened more than 20 years ago and continues to haunt people like him to this day.

MOORE: It's the South Canyon Fire just outside of Glenwood Springs.

BICHELL: In July 1994, a lightning bolt struck the top of a mountain in Colorado. Smoke jumpers dropped in and started working the fire. But as they did, a cold front started coming in.

MOORE: I mean, it's kind of a - it's prime burning conditions.

BICHELL: It can rile up winds and make them turn sharply.

MOORE: All of a sudden, the front comes through, and now the fire is coming right at you.

BICHELL: That's exactly what happened. Weather forecasters 90 miles away tried to warn the fire team. But...

MOORE: The red flag warning never made it to the people on the ground.

BICHELL: So the smoke jumpers kept working.

MOORE: And all of a sudden, the front come through. The fire grew immensely, and it turned on them and started chasing them.

BICHELL: They ran to escape the wall of fire. Some did. But 14 people died, largely because they missed a weather alert.

MOORE: Right. I mean - and that's why I get called out on fires.

BICHELL: So now Moore is right there with the firefighters - camping with them, eating breakfast with them, delivering forecasts in person and radioing them throughout the day. There are now about 70 incident meteorologists across the country. And this summer, they've been busy. For NPR News, I'm Rae Ellen Bichell.


GREENE: That story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, which is a public media collaboration.


Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.