RAPID CITY, S.D. (KELO) — In South Dakota, a large wildfire is possible year-round.
As crews continue to battle a grassland fire on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the South Dakota State Fire Meteorologist said conditions were ripe for the possibility of a large fire.
As the state’s fire meteorologist, Clabo said his primary role is forecasting when conditions align to make fire danger more and more likely. He said last week, he noticed the potential for record-breaking heat on Monday followed by a dry cold front that didn’t bring any precipitation but brought lots of wind. On Friday, he sent out a warning about the potential for critical fire weather conditions.
“The weather models are exceptionally good three days out,” Clabo told KELOLAND News. “On days like yesterday (Tuesday) or today (Wednesday), when we have critical fire weather situations I’m putting up forecasts. I’m letting folks know what we got going on.”
Clabo said he meets with the state climatologist Laura Edwards every Monday to put together a fire risk outlook. He said it’s important to have wildland fire partners aware of how dry many areas of southwestern South Dakota are right now. He said an invasive species of what he called “cheap grass” dies quicker than other grasses and carries fire faster.
He said the grassland fire on the Pine Ridge Reservation just needed ignition because there was classic July conditions – seven to 10 days of temperatures above average and a lack of precipitation in the same time frame.
“Those two things really start tilting the scales towards the potential for a big fire,” Clabo said. “And then you overlay the wind on it and you have all the ingredients to grow a really big fire.”
Clabo said he’s a Board of Regents employee because he works for the School of Mines as an associated professor but his position as fire meteorologist consults with the South Dakota Wildland Fire division within the Department of Public Safety.
In his duties, Clabo said he works very closely with other land management organizations as well as local fire departments.
“It’s 12-month fire season out here,” Clabo said. “We’re starting to get pretty dialed in terms of when we’re starting to see those real peak periods when big fires could occur. Yesterday was an absolutely classic example.”
On Twitter, Clabo shares forecast information and uses a satellite that can spot an infrared signature.
“Infrared is basically just heat,” Clabo said. “So if you see a spot with like a pixel on that image that has a ton of heat in it, there has to be something on the surface that’s emitting that heat.”
He noted the satellite is called the GOES-18 satellite, which is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and he’ll keep that satellite picture up on one of his monitors throughout his day.
“It’s a relatively new technology that’s out there and we’re definitely utilizing it in the fire weather world to identify where wildfires are at,” Clabo said. “We’re just able to see, basically, smaller and smaller fires.”
Clabo stressed he relies on working with the National Weather Service offices in South Dakota and fire meteorologists with the Rocky Mountain Area Predictive Services group.
“It’s not just me doing this, it’s definitely a larger broader umbrella of folks that are looking at these things,” Clabo said. “I love helping firefighters and I love helping the community understand wildfire risk better.”