The Extreme Meteorologist: Brent Wachter
What I Do:
Brent Wachter is one of 80 specially trained meteorologists the National Weather Service deploys to wildfires, hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, even the Super Bowl and presidential inaugurations. The program, designed to create hyper-specific forecasts for special events, dates back to World War II, when weathermen were used to predict the safety of flying bombing runs. “We’re the tip of the weather service’s spear,” Wachter says. A full-time forecaster in Albuquerque, Wachter uses remote weather stations, balloons, and predictive wind readings to forecast weather at different elevations and times of the day when he’s on assignment. The ultimate goal is to protect first responders from the elements and whatever changes they bring.
A forecasters primary job — compressing data streams into a single narrative — is best done behind a computer. IMETs gather their intelligence in the field. Before taking the hundreds of hours of classes required to be an IMET, Wachter did a stint with a private weather-consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Since then, he’s deployed to more than 65 incidents and disasters, including Hurricane Katrina. He was also the fire weather forecaster in Victoria, Australia, during the Black Saturday Fires that killed 173 people and burned 2,029 homes. “It was 116 degrees, the worst fire conditions I’ve ever seen,” says Wachter. “It was so hot and windy that boils were forming on peoples’ heads.”
The “Big Boy”
Wachter’s most memorable assignment was forecasting Arizona’s Wallow Fire, a blaze that burned a state-record half-million acres in 2011. “I got to fire camp on the Wallow’s second day. Two days later [the town of] Alpine burned, Wachter recalls. On the afternoon of June 1, 100-foot flames were torching thousands of trees, emitting so much heat that the smoke column rose 40,000 feet into the atmosphere. At that elevation, whatever moisture the fire released from burned plants froze and formed enormous pyrocumulous clouds that perched atop the smoke column like a lollipop on a stick. Around 3 p.m., “The column started rotating, then it lost its feet,” Wachter says. The entire column collapsed on itself, generating winds in excess of 40 miles per hour.
At the time, Wachter, 40 fire engines, and 100 firefighters were in a meadow where they planned to hold the flames outside Alpine. When the winds hit, the visibility fell to nothing, the light turned milk red, and Wachter’s helmet ripped off his head. He jumped in the truck with a local colleague and they raced from cabins to camprounds, making sure everybody had evacuated. Meanwhile, the firefighters searched for embers that might spark new smaller fires ahead of the main blaze. “The Wallow was throwing embers two and half miles ahead of itself,” Wachter says. “Supernatural.” By day’s end, more than 50 houses were ash. Albuquerque, 200 miles to the northeast, fell dark beneath the smoke’s shadow. A silver lining: Wachter and his colleagues had a new pet, a brown hound a firefighter had rescued in the chaos that he rescued. “That’s what touched my heart,” he says. “When you’re out there, working hard in intense conditions and the fire is kicking your butt, it’s nice to have those good moments to come back to.” -Kyle Dickman