Spring is fire season too

In addition to severe thunderstorm season, spring is also grass fire season in the plains. While many ranchers execute controlled burns through the spring to clear dead grass from the previous year and remove unwanted tree saplings, there are also many unintentional fires from other sources. This week was been warm, dry, and very windy across the plains. Because most grass has not yet greened up this spring and rain has been limited, the strong wind and very low humidity is leading to critical fire weather conditions in which fires spread quickly and are difficult to put out, as indicated by the Storm Prediction Center fire weather outlook for today.

national RHNational wind speedday1otlk_fire

One of the larger ongoing fires started yesterday in northwest Oklahoma and is still burning in southwest Kansas this afternoon. So far it is estimated to have burned over 40,000 acres. Both the burn scar (dark line in the red-outlined area) and the smoke plume (white patch in the white-outlined area) can be seen in the visible satellite imagery.

Fire satellite zoom

The smoke plume of this fire as well as another one to the south are also visible on radar. The first image is from the new dual-pane mode of RadarScope 3.0 and shows Reflectivity on the left and Correlation Coefficient on the right. Correlation coefficient is a measure of how similar the particles being sampled are to each other in size, shape, orientation, and composition, and because smoke consists of a mixture of small aerosol particles and larger more diverse pieces of ash, extremely low values of correlation coefficient is one of the distinguishing characteristics of smoke. That signature is apparent here, as almost all the higher reflectivity between Freedom, OK and Pratt, KS has correlation coefficient below 0.3 (“high” values for precipitation are > 0.95, “low” values for clutter or insects are 0.5-0.8).

The second image shows the same reflectivity on the left, but differential reflectivity on the right. Differential reflectivity is a measure of the average shape and orientation of the particles being sampled. Values close to zero indicate particles that are either spherical or have no preferred orientation. Positive values indicate particles that are wider than they are tall, and negative values indicate particles taller than they are wide. In the center of the smoke plumes, differential reflectivity is near zero. Given the very low correlation coefficient, this likely indicates larger irregularly-shaped pieces of ash that are tumbling or fluttering in the turbulent airflow above the active part of the fire and have no consistent preferred orientation. On the edges of the plumes, differential reflectivity is higher. This likely results from these same ash particles falling back to earth with a preferred horizontal orientation where vertical air motion is weaker away from the fire itself.


This is another example of interesting applications of dual-polarization radar data (and an opportunity to play with dual-pane mode in RadarScope), as well as a reminder to pay attention to fire weather advisories issued by the National Weather Service, and be very careful of outdoor fires on excessively windy days such as this.



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