WASHINGTON, D.C.—On July 12, 2023, Oklahoma State Forester Mark Goeller shared his expertise on enhancing wildfire prediction and response coordination before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. As Canadian wildfires dominate discussion, wildfires, their rampant devastation and impact on air quality are gripping the attention of communities around the world. Goeller pointed to Oklahoma’s collaboration with the National Weather Service as a potential model for national use.
Goeller, member of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) Executive Committee and Chair of the Southern Group of State Foresters, was asked to testify because of Oklahoma’s unique Mesonet system, an internet-accessible network of over 100 remote automated weather stations across the state. The system’s structure and the rapidly updated information it provides has proved instrumental in monitoring weather conditions which could impact strategy and tactics for wildfire response, and the committee would like to highlight it as a potential national interagency model. A key theme of the hearing was the pivotal utility of interagency and interjurisdictional coordination, and the need to enhance national coordinative efforts.
The critical nature of recent technological developments and the imperative to continue in their investment is readily apparent to those putting their lives at risk for such work each day. “Prior to 2015, I would have on average one day’s warning that areas of the state would experience high-to-extreme fire danger. That changed in late 2015 when National Weather Service officials approached our Agency,” notes Goeller, referencing a relationship whose resulting increase in access to technologies and resources would go on to increase the warning timeframe from a single day to an average of three to seven days. Advanced notification is one of a few crucial instruments in minimizing the cost of life and resources resulting from wildfire.
Goeller said another innovation employed in Oklahoma is to issue Fire Warnings utilizing an Integrated Warning Team approach. This warning system involves the local National Weather Service Forecast Office detecting and communicating to partners the location of a potentially dangerous wildfire; Oklahoma Forestry Services utilizing Wildfire Analyst, a commercially-available modeling software to predict the potential spread from the wildfire’s ignition point; the incident commander and local emergency managers confirming the Warning need and providing relevant evacuation information; and finally, State Emergency Management broadcasting the Fire Warning through the Emergency Alert System to a targeted area jointly identified by the National Weather Service and Oklahoma Forestry Services. A Fire Warning was issued in just six minutes on a recent wildfire occurring in a heavily populated wildland-urban interface area in the Oklahoma City Metro area. The legacy process often required approximately 90 minutes to issue a Fire Warning.
Given the breadth of his expertise, members took the opportunity to invoke Goeller’s insight on a range of topics, with Goeller even informing attendees of the importance of forest markets (I.e., the marketing of products sustainably derived from local forests) in providing carbon storage solutions to prevent carbon from being released in the event of a wildfire.
The full hearing can be viewed here.