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Texas Forest Service Predictive Services: At their best when conditions are at their worst

Every day Predictive Services Department Head Tom Spencer and his team study weather patterns, drought conditions and the status of vegetation across the state.

They gather wind speeds and moisture levels from the field. They monitor areas reporting high winds and low moisture levels, two of the key ingredients for dangerous wildfires. They study changes in land use and the long term wildfire risks that accompany them.

“I’m hoping a wildfire outbreak doesn’t happen, but I’m glad we have the capabilities that we do,” Spencer said of the thoughts that race through his mind when the predictions start to come together.

“It’s just like hurricane or tornado forecasting. It’s good to be able to do it and get the information out, but it doesn’t change the outcome. The hurricane always makes landfall somewhere, the tornado always destroys someone’s house somewhere. These fires always occur and somebody is at risk.”

Created in 1998, the Texas Forest Service Predictive Services Department is tasked with forecasting fire danger. Spencer has led the department since its inception and his team is divided by their specialty – gathering weather data, studying vegetation and mapping wildfire risk.

Spencer then consolidates all their information, focusing on the bigger picture as he develops a longer term forecast. As they complete the process, they also produce several maps – including fire danger and drought maps – that detail conditions and are available to the public.

The research and forecasts have proven invaluable to Texas Forest Service fire managers, who are tasked with planning when and where additional people and equipment may be needed.

“Tom Spencer’s job is to produce seasonal forecasts, as well as short term weekly and daily forecasts – and he’s never been wrong,” said Mark Stanford, fire operations chief for Texas Forest Service.

But Spencer is quick to point out that the agency doesn’t do it alone. When the team spots an alarming trend, they immediately alert their partners: National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the USDA Forest Service, as well as a host of other agencies.

“We want to make sure we’re on the same page and seeing the same thing,” Spencer said. “We get feedback along those lines and it helps us develop a more comprehensive operating picture of what’s coming.”

With the advancements made during the last three decades, the climate indicators have become pretty consistent, Spencer said, explaining that everyone generally is on the same page.

And when everyone is in agreement, Spencer said, it’s time to notify the public. When your job focuses on predicting disasters, the most rewarding aspect is helping people better protect themselves.

“That’s really what we’re all about and why we do this, and it’s why the National Weather Service forecasters do what they do,” Spencer said. “We can’t stop a disaster, but hopefully, our work helps limit the amount of damage that results from one. The safety of our citizens is key.”

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