Weather conditions — especially wind and heat — have been a central concern for firefighters battling the Sherpa Fire burning along the Gaviota coast, and meteorologist Carl S. Cerniglia Jr. has become the go-to guy on that topic.
A 29-year veteran of the National Weather Service who arrived on scene Friday, Cerniglia is part of an 80-member corps of NWS meteorologists nationwide who are specially trained and are dispatched to major wildfires.
They provide a level of fire-weather expertise that goes above and beyond what local forecast offices can offer.
“Basically we’re looking for anything that’s going to impact the fire that they need, first of all, for safety,” Cerniglia told Noozhawk. “The prime reason for us being here is firefighter safety. While we’re here, we’re also used to help with their tactical decisions.”
Every fire is different, Cerniglia said, and the terrain of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the coastal environment create unique conditions for the spread and control of a wildfire.
“This geography presents quite a few challenges, namely sundowners,” he said. “You don’t normally get stronger winds at nighttime hours, so that’s a unique feature for this range here.
“The other issue with that feature is it’s highly variable, not only from day to day, but from canyon to canyon. So you can have wind blowing very strongly in one canyon, and the next canyon over, it’s hardly blowing at all, and that will change from day to day as well.
“That is the great challenge — trying to adjust for that, account for that, and make the firefighters on the ground aware of that.”
Fire-weather forecasters use the latest technology, including sophisticated computer modeling, to try to predict what’s going to happen on the fire lines.
They also use various remote weather stations — both public and private — in and around the fire area that provide critical information on temperatures, wind and humidity.
Portable stations can be set up as needed, Cerniglia said, although that has not happened so far on the Sherpa Fire.
Cerniglia said he works closely with local forecasting offices — in this case the NWS bureau in Oxnard.
“I let them know what’s going on here and our concerns and what I see, and they let me know what they see because they’re the local experts, as far as all the little intricacies that they may have,” he said.
“I also get to talk with the local forest folks here, the local agencies, to try to tease out what I can about the local effects, because everywhere you go, there is some little subtlety that has a large impact on the weather.”
Cerniglia’s job can be high pressure, knowing that lives can be on the line.
The Tuscon resident arrived at 3 p.m. Friday from another fire in Arizona, and was called upon three hours later to give a weather briefing to the crew beginning its night-side shift.
“There’s a really sharp learning curve, or steep curve of information gathering, so you can get a good idea of what’s happening across the fire,” Cerniglia said.