Tuesday, August 11, 2020

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Moab, UT

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    Where there is smoke there is not always fire

    Castle Valley Comments

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    Ron Drake
    Ron Drake
    Times-Independent Columnist

    Where there’s smoke doesn’t necessarily mean there is fire — at least not around here. Most years during the heat of the season we can see smoke in the valley and mountains and we can even smell it sometimes.

    Columnist Ron Drake's portrait

    The strong gusty winds carry the smoke in from somewhere else where a fire is raging. There was a fire near Gateway, Colorado last week and a small fire in San Juan County this week that probably accounts for a lot of the smoke we see and smell here, but there were no nearby fires.

    Locally, we have been under a “red flag” warning much of last week and part of this week, which means that the conditions are right for an easy ignition and rapid growth of a fire. High temperatures, low humidity and strong winds are the right ingredient to spark and spread a wildfire. It was announced last week that the State Forester issued fire restrictions for Grand and San Juan counties. Those restrictions involve campfires, smoking, welding and grinding and fireworks. The town ordinance already restricts those activities when the fire danger is posted at high or above.

    The weather monitoring instruments in my yard showed a high temperature of 97 degrees Friday and a low temperature that night of 80 degrees and wind gusts of up to 35 miles per hour. That kind of weather keeps fire personnel at the ready and weather forecasters busy trying to predict the fire weather behavior.

    But, according to Tom Haraden, COVID-19 has had an unexpected affect on weather forecasting. He says that everyday weather data is collected and transmitted in real time to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from thousands of commercial airliners worldwide, 24 hours a day. These data are significant in preparing weather forecasts. “On an average day,” he said, “800,000 weather observations are collected from 43 airlines. That’s 250 million observations a year. All of the information is shared worldwide.

    “Since the pandemic, airlines have reduced flight schedules and airplanes sit idle. Measurements from aircraft have fallen 75-80 percent. Forecasters still use a wide variety of data gathering sources, so all is not lost. These include satellites, radar, human observations at official stations, Remote Automated Weather Stations, ships at sea, and over 900 stations that launch a weather balloon twice each day. Who would have suspected that a virus would affect weather forecasts?” Haraden concluded.

    In another weather-related incident two weeks ago, during the full moon, Diana Vaughn was outside before dawn with the dogs that needed to do what animals need to do during the middle of the night. While outside she spotted a rainbow in the sky that was created by the light of the moon, which is actually caused by the light from the sun but not directly. She called to husband Dave to see the spectacle in the sky but he was unable to get the camera in time to photograph the rare event. Moonbows or lunar rainbows are fairly rare for our area but are more common where waterfalls or bodies of water put a mist into the air to create the rainbow.

    Extreme weather and fire have been part of our living in Castle Valley since the very beginning of the community. I reported in Castle Valley Comments 40 years ago this week of a scary fire that was started by a person burning trash on his property on Shafer Lane. The fire ignited the nearby dry grass and eventually consumed 80 acres of grass and brush on the east side of Castle Valley Drive between Shafer and Buchanan lanes.

    There were no structures damaged in that incident despite the fact that the fire burned to within a few feet and sometimes encircling buildings along Shafer Lane. Strong and changing winds hampered efforts and the wind was responsible for a major flare-up at about 5 p.m. when most of the acreage burned.

    Today a fire like that would still be a challenge, but the fire department has more and better equipment than we had back then and more and better trained firefighters than existed then. Most importantly the residents today are much more fire conscious than they were back then, it seems.

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