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Cantwell bill would boost funding for NWS fire forecasting efforts

Cantwell forecast office.jpg
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) views computer model output for smoke particles with meteorologist Robyn Heffernan (left) at the National Weather Service's Spokane forecast office, Wednesday, June 1.

A bill co-sponsored by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) would increase and direct funding for the National Weather Service’s fire forecasting efforts.

The bill, introduced in the Senate in May and co-sponsored with Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan, is called the Fire Ready America Act.

The name evokes the Weather Service’s extant “Weather Ready Nation” initiative, which launched in 2014. But where Weather Ready Nation is aimed at preparing the civilian population for weather emergencies, the Fire Ready Nation Act has a different goal: improving wildfire forecasts, and making them more accurate and helpful to emergency responders and others who must know what a wildfire is doing and how it will affect communities.

“We know we will face a significant fire threat. Each year wildfires result in irreplaceable loss of life and homes and property. They destroy our crops and timber -- and obviously smoke damage,” Sen. Cantwell said during a June 1 visit to the Spokane National Weather Service office. “We owe it to…firefighters to make sure that they have the very best data.”

The bill seeks to officially establish and strengthen fire forecasting projects within the NWS. Its provisions call for funding fire forecasting research, investing in the weather instruments and computer processes necessary to study and predict wildfires, creating a pilot program that would use drones to gather data near wildfires, and bolstering a roster of specialized meteorologists.

That group of forecasters, called incident meteorologists, is a small corps whose members are deployed to fire lines and other disasters to provide real-time weather analysis and forecasts to emergency responders.

“Having the ability to have the meteorologists in the field with our fire personnel actually watching what is happening in that fire environment is key,” said Chandra Fox, Deputy Director of Spokane County Emergency Management. “A shift in wind direction or a drop in humidity can drastically change fire behavior, and [can] mean the difference between containment and the fire making a run into a populated area.”

The Fire Ready Nation Act would formalize the incident meteorologist program and support its small crew. Last year, 78 incident meteorologists were deployed more than 200 times on tours that in some cases lasted for weeks.

Cantwell John Fox.jpg
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
National Weather Service incident meteorologist John Fox shows Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) some of the tools used in the field when studying wildfires. Cantwell was visiting the NWS Spokane forecast office, Wednesday, June 1.

The Cantwell-Sullivan bill builds on a batch of targeted funding that was included in a bipartisan infrastructure bill. That measure, approved in late 2021, included:

  • $50 million for stationary and mobile weather equipment, upgrading the NWS’s communication system for fire forecasts, and giving IMETS better tools to analyze weather data in the field.
  • $50 million to develop computer modeling techniques for fire forecasts.
  • $80 million for research, preparedness and measuring forecast accuracy.

The Fire Ready Nation Act calls for an initial funding base of $55 million in FY 2023, building to $200 million in FY 2027.
The bill has been considered by the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, which Cantwell chairs and of which Sullivan is a member. The committee discussed adjustments to the bill on May 25 and sent the amended measure to the full Senate. A vote has not been scheduled.