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Fire Science award

Fire scientist Matt Jolly, left, and meteorologist Larry Bradshaw received the Forest Service's highest award for innovation and initiative in developing an improved National Fire Danger Rating System.

It was hard to tell which mattered more to Matt Jolly and Larry Bradshaw: the plaques of silver boots awarded by their superiors or the roomful of applause from their fire-science peers.

On Friday, Jolly had just wrapped up a presentation of a new National Fire Danger Rating System he and Bradshaw had finished last fall. It will go into service this fire season, helping incident commanders and first-year firefighters predict their risk as they go into the field. They weren’t warned that the project had earned the Forest Service’s Gleeson Award — the highest honor given for innovation and initiative in fire research.

“Wildfire fighters across the nation will be able to make better decisions because of this,” Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) leader Colin Hardy said. “This is the pinnacle of recognition in the fire community.”

What Jolly and Bradshaw did was take a system for turning weather conditions and fuel types into an easy-to-understand rating — and make it better. In large part, they used tons of modern technology to make it simpler.

The system was first developed in 1922, within memory of the historic 1910 Big Burn fires that helped bring the Forest Service into existence as a national land management agency. Over the years, it got more and more complex, expanding from five types of fuel conditions to 40 and depending on daily hand-made weather observations.

Jolly’s fuel-burning experiments determined that while humid southeastern tree farms differ greatly from South Dakota grasslands or Montana mountainsides, their burning styles actually fit into five basic categories. Bradshaw used his meteorological background to incorporate the huge advances in automated wind and temperature monitoring, satellite terrain observations and archived weather conditions to expand the daily weather factor to hourly or better inputs.

The results produced a fire danger rating that accurately compared with past records of actual fire behavior. In particular, its highest warning matched exactly the circumstances that resulted in people getting killed in tragedies well-known in the fire community, like the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona in 2013 and the South Canyon fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado in 1994. Jolly said they also proved accurate in last fall’s Santa Rosa and Thomas fire fatalities in California.

“When we know the conditions that lead to fatalities, we can position ourselves properly,” Jolly said. “We want to put this in the right people’s hands so they can change what they do at the right time.”

Hardy, whose own father also served at RMRS and worked on the fire danger system, said Jolly’s and Bradshaw’s work built on a century of effort largely centered in the Missoula scientific community.

“These are two of our current giants in the fire danger rating system,” Hardy said. “The next generation will stand on these shoulders.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.