Associated Press Writer
BRUSETT (AP) - With only a few words, Dan Borsum and Gary Olsen
can get a big reaction from firefighters.
On Thursday, the men tracking the weather and fire behavior on
three large wildfires in east-central Montana heard the now
familiar groans and sighs when they mentioned gusty winds, high
temperatures and the potential for thunderstorms.
"The good news," Borsum told firefighters at a morning
briefing here, "is that Friday we're expecting temperatures 15 to
20 degrees cooler than they have been."
Though temperatures have recently hovered near 100 degrees, the
news hardly caused a stir among firefighters focused on the day's
work ahead - holding line and continuing to make progress on blazes
that have burned on over 131,000 acres. Borsum and Olsen expected a
busy day, too, keeping tabs on the changeable winds and combustible
fuels and getting such vital information to fire managers quickly.
"With that, you can start to think, How can we use the
topography and wind to our advantage?" fire information officer
Pat McKelvey said. "In some cases, it may mean the difference
between a direct or indirect attack."
Borsum, an incident meteorologist, uses a satellite system to
obtain and monitor detailed maps, radar and satellite images on a
laptop computer in the small hall where fire operations are based.
This, he said, gives a more timely, accurate picture of what's
happening. In the past, he said, he would have relied a lot on
information gleaned from surfing the Internet.
"We have more data, it's better, and the ability to download it
at breakneck speed is important," he said.
Borsum is working with Olsen, a fire behavior analyst who uses
the weather information to help make predictions about the likely
effect on the fires.
It's a difficult job, complicated by factors including the
rugged terrain. In one place, winds might be calm while in another
- a canyon, for example - winds may be strong and shifty.
"No one can really predict everything out there; you just
can't," Olsen said. "But the closer you get, the happier you are.
When you get one or two things right, it's great."
Olsen tries to gather as much information as possible about the
landscape, local fire history and vegetation types when he arrives
at a fire. He also surveys it.
In this area, much of the land is parched and fire fuels -
things like trees, grasses or logs - are very dry. Olsen snaps his
fingers to show how fast a tree could burn and, as he looks over
blackened land left by one of the blazes north of Brusett, a flash
of fire appears in the distance. Soon it and a tree are gone.
But Olsen said weather remains the key.
"If you can figure out the weather," he said, "you can figure
out the fire."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)