Enhanced Risk of Wildfire Resulting from the Interactions between Pyro-Cumulus and Mountain Waves: Implications for Fire Research and Management
Wednesday, 17 December 2014
The Los Alamos National Laboratory is conducting a research project to understand the physical mechanisms behind the Las Conchas Fire that occurred in Santa Fe National Forest near Los Alamos, New Mexico on June 26, 2011. Between 8 pm on June 26 and 3 am on June 27, the fire grew from 8,000 to 43,000 acres, spreading downhill in sparse fuels and lighter winds than were present during the first several hours of the fire. Fire behavior experts and fire management officers expected the fire to reach 9,000 to 12,000 acres by sunrise due to the anticipated burning conditions, but it actually increased 440% in size before 3 am, surprising everyone. One viable hypothesis was suggested for this baffling fire behavior: a partial collapse of the soot-laden pyrocumulus column (pyro-cu) that towered above the fire, causing a sustained density current carrying fire at high speed. Moreover, another mechanism has been suggested recently that could have significantly affected the fire characteristics around mountainous regions, such as Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos: the drastic changes in the speed, direction, and gustiness of the winds due to the development of mountain waves. The present research tests these hypotheses and attempts to decipher the combination of environmental conditions, due to pyro-cu and mountain wave interactions, and fire behavior dynamics associated with this anomalous wildfire event. Preliminary results from WRF (Weather Research and Forecasting model) and HIGRAD (High-GRADient model developed at LANL) simulations suggest that these two mechanisms may need to be taken into account in order to fully understand and prepare for atypical wildfire behavior in regions with complex topography. It is possible that the Las Conchas Fire could have directly affected the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory if the fire broke out concurrently with both pyro-cu and strong mountain waves along the upstream of the Laboratory. This research also addresses its implications for the management as well as the research of wildfire in that, in order to prepare for potential wildfire, the topography of the surrounding region as well as the region of importance itself should be taken into account.