Updated: March 29, 2013 at 12:00 am
Days after the Waldo Canyon fire started, meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Pueblo issued their first flash-flood warning in the fire area.
They took heat for it.
Another complication for firefighters, some said. Others wanted the rain, especially during such a horrific blaze. Some apparently thought that a flash-flood warning would send the rain gods a negative message and the spigot would be shut off.
To see these meteorologists, you wouldn’t think they have that much celestial clout. They look more like accountants than titans of weather.
And yet, just about everything El Paso County residents do is affected by the unpredictable winds, fickle rains and capricious snowstorms that they monitor every minute, of every hour, of every day.
In the world of first responders, they’re on the weather front.
“It’s challenging to predict the weather in the mountains,” said Jennifer Stark, meteorologist-in-charge in Pueblo. “This time of year we can have fire weather in the plains and blizzards in the mountains.”
In El Paso County, the single biggest danger to residents are flash floods, which hit in a season that starts in July and runs through August. But spring rains can do damage, too, said Tom Magnuson, warning coordination meteorologist.
“It all has to do with how fast the rain comes and the amount,” Stark said.
The complication this year is the Waldo Canyon burn scar -— that burned out, desolate land left by the fire. It won’t take much to trigger a flash flood, Magnuson said.
In some areas the heat was so intense, the land was reduced to “hydrophobic” scorched soil that won’t absorb water – like water glancing off glass.
After the blaze, change was in the wind. The weather service on July 3 was already meeting with emergency officials about the dangers of flash floods in that area.
As a result, when rain threatens, the Waldo area gets a full-time meteorologist of its own. Another big change — it will take as little as two-tenths to half inch of rain to trigger flash-flood advisories. More than a half inch per hour will set in motion a flash-flood warning.
Most other areas it takes “several times that” to spark flash-flood warnings, said Magnuson, who visits the burn site often, taking photos and bringing information back for analysis.
When Waldo sparked June 23, the meteorologists had an inkling of the danger.
“We knew if any fire started, it was going to be very dangerous because of the winds and dryness,” Magnuson said.
Wildfires ignite all kinds of activity at the weather service.
Makoto Moore is Pueblo’s fire weather expert and incident meteorologist. When wildfires break out, he heads for the site to help firefighters and emergency management officials keep track of conditions that will affect the fire.
With Waldo, Moore was in Arizona working another wildfire. Typically he sets up what amounts to a small version of the weather service office using his laptop computer, which has satellite capabilities.
Because he was out of town, the first meteorologist at Waldo was from Boulder, followed by a veteran wildfire weather expert from Charleston, West Va.
The weather doesn’t get a break with these guys, who toil in front of their computer screens in a nondescript brick building near Pueblo Memorial Airport.
There are 10 forecasters, five senior and five general. They work 8-hour shifts, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight and midnight to 8 a.m. It rotates, so everybody gets stuck with the overnight shift at one time or another.
On March 15, senior meteorologist Larry Walrod was working the short-term desk, which determines the forecast for that day, that night and the next day. This is stuff airports need. So do television forecasters and residents as they go about their day. There is also a fire weather forecast, Stark said.
Aviation forecasts run 24 hours and can result in an airliner adding extra fuel because of the wind, switching runways or even changing destinations. Meteorologists are players in all sorts of major events, from national political rallies to the NFL’s Superbowl and PGA Tour events.
Moore was working the long range desk — 7 days of weather — tracking trends and major storms. This time of year, he sees the gamut — thunder, snow, high winds, even blizzards. It’s an unstable time, he said.
Record high temperature potentials were forecast for March 15 in Pueblo and Colorado Springs.
Walrod was pretty confident they would hit it.
The record high in Pueblo for that day was 76 in 1999, and it was 75 degrees around noon. The record high in Colorado Springs was 71 in 1935. They were right on both counts. The high soared to 80 in Pueblo and 73 in Colorado Springs.
“Every time you get something right, you feel pretty good,” Walrod said. “I will say we are more right than the public knows.”
For a stodgy federal agency, the National Weather Service is pretty high tech.
There’s a chat room with instant messaging for first responders, the media and weather service employees. Local television forecasters land on the site at around 2-3 p.m. for their evening newscasts.
“It’s a really nice instant collaboration tool,” Walrod said.
The office’s Facebook page has 1,500 followers and Tweets are not uncommon. The office often gets its first hint of wildfires and airplane crashes by monitoring Tweets, Magnuson said.
The office also relies on a network of about 1,100 volunteers. Think of them as weather geeks — part of Skywarn, which nationwide has almost 300,000 volunteers.
Some of the volunteers, Stark said, have their own weather stations and about 10 percent have wind measurement equipment – pretty sophisticated stuff for hobbyists.
But, she said, “If they are a volunteer, they are interested in weather.”
Then, there are the high adrenaline spotters called stormchasers. When really severe weather rolls in, like tornadoes or major thunderstorms, these guys hit the road with their video cameras.
There’s also the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. These are volunteers who measure precipitation and then record the data. Additional help comes from El Paso County Ham radio operators, Stark said. There are more than 1,000 in El Paso County.
“They are very good in El Paso County for severe weather,” said Magnuson. “We have all these fancy tools, but we still need people out there in the field monitoring what’s happening.”
During severe weather, everything comes into play. It’s a vast network whose hub is the weather service. In Pueblo, one meteorologist issues warnings, another takes telephone calls from spotters and the media. The more severe the weather, the more the office fills up.
“It’s a challenge,” Stark said. “There’s never the same forecast twice. It impacts people and sometimes I can help save a life.”
Flash floods aren’t the only threat in El Paso County.
Magnuson, who lives in western Colorado Springs, said lightning is a big concern. Colorado averages more than 500,000 lightning strikes a year, according to the weather service.
Magnuson estimated there are 27,500 lightning strikes each year in El Paso County, and the west side of the Springs gets a density of lightning strikes that comes close to the density of strikes in Florida, the nation’s leader.
Lightning awareness programs sponsored by the service have helped. But this time of year, it’s best to be on guard, he said.
On July 24, 2011, lightning struck at the Aztec Family Raceway east of Colorado Springs, injuring five.
“El Paso County,” Magnuson said, “is the most dangerous county to live in Colorado.”