By Julia Halprin Jackson
Fire weather researcher Kate Forrest contributed to groundbreaking research analyzing factors that contribute to California’s extreme fires — demonstrating how climate change knows no borders.
In August 2021, Kate Forrest, ’23 MS Meteorology, observed two large counter-rotating fire vortices spinning out of control outside Susanville, California, where the Dixie Fire ravaged the countryside. A graduate research assistant with San José State University’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center (WIRC), Forrest and the team, led by San José State Meteorology Professor and WIRC Director Craig Clements, assembled their scientific tools alongside Highway 395 as they observed weather phenomena theorized to be the precursors to fire tornadoes — the “unicorns” of the fire weather world.
“Fire tornadoes are extreme fire weather phenomena as rare as a unicorn,” Forrest said during her Grad Slam award-winning research presentation in spring 2022. “In the last three years, there have been six confirmed fire tornadoes. It’s an alarming trend, but sadly no surprise. Climate change is causing our fires to burn hotter and [with more intensity] than ever before.”
Forrest won the 2022 Grad Slam competition with her presentation on fire tornadoes. Grad Slam features graduate students presenting their research in three minutes with only one slide. Photo: Robert C. Bain.
The WIRC team observed the Dixie Fire tornado for several hours that triple-digit day using two mobile remote-automated weather stations attached to trucks to collect data on temperature and humidity. Forrest and her colleagues scanned the sky using a mobile Ka-Band Doppler radar and a Doppler wind profiler called a LiDAR measuring the atmosphere to check wind speed and direction.
“The hallmark aspect of this data set was that we recorded it with our own instrumentation suite,” she recalls. “We were able to see the highest possible resolution of the event, which had never been done before.”
Forrest relayed the data to modelers who fed it into WRF-SFIRE*, a wildfire forecast and modeling system co-created by SJSU Assistant Professor of Meteorology and Climate Science Adam Kochanski. They hope to use the data to create more accurate fire models, which could help predict future events.
The thrill and rush of observing her first wildfire up close inspired Forrest to research wildfire plume dynamics using weather radar and how counter-rotating vortex pairs occur — as well as what scientists and citizens can do to forecast and prevent future occurrences.
“It was an unreal experience to watch years of interagency planning, collaboration and hard work culminate in fire and data. When I saw it, I was overcome with emotion. It was the fire-weather equivalent to Christmas morning.”
— Kate Forrest
Despite her auspicious last name, Forrest didn’t consider a career in wildfire science until her senior year of college, when she saw footage of California’s red-orange sky in summer 2020.
“When I saw the sheer intensity and destructive power of the California fires, not just that year, but also in years prior, I realized that this is where meteorology is heading,” she says. “This is the clearest, most destructive evidence that our climate is changing. It’s not even about the ignition or the fire itself but rather its resulting impacts affecting the ecology and biosphere.
San José State was an obvious choice for graduate school because it is home to the only wildfire center of its kind that involves students in hands-on research in the field. In addition to deploying to multiple fires, Forrest participated in an unparalleled experiment to study extreme fire behavior during a prescribed burn on private land outside Salinas, California, in October 2022 — the first canyon wildfire study of this magnitude conducted anywhere in the world.
The California Canyon Fire Experiment, led by Clements and Kochanski, involved scientists from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, as well as professionals from CAL FIRE, PG&E, Hexion, Stella-Jones Corporation and Technosylva.
Forrest manned the mobile radar and launched a weather balloon to measure fire spread, flame heat flux, fire perimeter, fire weather and fire-atmosphere interactions. Their data will help determine how local atmospheric conditions affect wildfire spread in canyons and how fire-induced winds in the canyon impact fire behavior.
Kiera Malarkey, '23 MS Meteorology, and Kate Forrest, '23 MS Meteorology, at the 2022 California Canyon Fire Experiment outside Salinas. Photo courtesy of Kate Forrest.
“Wildfire research is more important than ever, and San José State is really the place to do it,” she adds. Her hard work paid off this spring, when she accepted a position as a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
“No other university has our resources, and I couldn’t have asked for a better cohort of professors. All of their encouragement throughout the research process has been invaluable. I like getting my hands dirty and being out in the wilderness seeing science unfold. It has been incredible, the best two years of my life.”
Learn more about the WIRC
WIRC is the only National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Center on wildfire in the country, with faculty from meteorology and climate science, environmental studies, engineering, political science, ecology, anthropology, economics, urban and regional planning, and computer science.
Learn more about their wildfire research.
Top video: Drone of canyon fire by Bo Yang. Middle photo: Anwyn Hurxthal.