Firefighters' weather station melts on Lolo Peak Fire


MISSOULA, Mont. - A weather station being used to monitor the Lolo Peak Fire likely suffered damage during the fire's over 9,000 acre expansion Friday afternoon. The National Weather Service reported on twitter that the station was no longer reporting wind speed or direction Saturday morning.

RAWS stands for Remote Automated Weather Station. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, this particular station is one of 42 portable units used by firefighters to monitor and predict conditions on large fires across the U.S. There are three of these stations being used on the Lolo Peak Fire currently.

The station in question is located at the summit of Mormon Peak, which conveniently lies at the end of a forest service road up Mormon Creek southwest of Lolo. In this satellite photo you can see it's in a sand or dirt area surrounded by a road and a few large trees. More importantly, it was across the canyon and to the north of the Lolo Peak Fire on Friday morning.

That quickly changed because of Red Flag fire weather conditions Friday afternoon and evening. A few hours and over 9,000 acres later almost all of Mormon Peak was burned. Between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. Friday the station recorded a temperature increase of 33 degrees from 86 to 119 degrees Fahrenheit as the flames advanced. At 8 p.m. the wind speed and direction readings ceased working when the hottest temperature was measured.

Portable RAWS like the one shown below all have the same basic format of an anemometer used to measure winds extended on a pole from the base of the unit. Because they are designed to be lightweight these anemometers are usually made out of plastic. If flames were jumping between trees near the weather station the temperature above the ground could have been much hotter than 119 degrees, enough to partially melt the anemometer and cause it to stop working.

The combination of the temperature increase, the fire spread across Mormon Peak, and the subsequent malfunction all point to this station being overrun and damaged by the fire. These units cost $16,000 each according to the NIFC, so putting one in harms way isn't preferred. It's a testament to the speed and intensity that the fire had Friday evening.

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