Weather Blog

Even the most in-shape firefighters affected by Seattle's heat wave

Even the most in-shape firefighters affected by Seattle's heat wave

Firefighters, by the nature of their job, already have one of the hottest jobs you could imagine. But what about when Mother Nature brings blazing temperatures on the outside as well?

When a massive fire broke out in an apartment building on Queen Anne Hill on July 1 , firefighters were called in from as far away as Redmond, Shoreline and Bellevue as temperatures were sitting at 90 degrees. Why so many firefighters from all over? To make sure there were plenty on hand to rotate in and out so firefighters didn't overheat.

And with 90 degrees suddenly common this summer around Seattle, I wondered how local fire departments were dealing with the relentless heat, and how they manage to keep firefighters cool when their surroundings are burning up.

"It is brutal. It really is," said Battalion Fire Chief Doug McDonald with Renton Fire. "Even the most in-shape firefighter is going to be impacted by the heat."

Preparations for a hot day begin with each shift.

"Every morning at shift change, the shift commander, the battalion chiefs and deputy chiefs have a conference call that will include dispatchers," said Deputy Chief Mark Larson with Seattle Fire. "Usually part of conversation is to go over the temperature projections that day."

Then they'll formulate a plan with the dispatchers:

"(We tell them) if we get a full response, when they're listening to the response, and they're listening to what is happening on the scene by those first arriving companies, they've been empowered based on what they're hearing to send a couple more engines on their way," Larson said. "Incident commanders are also prompted: don't hesitate to call for another alarm or a few more companies."

It is something Larson says they're all cognizant of.

"The safety officer will frequently bring hand-held weather stations to fire scenes and constantly check the weather conditions at the scene, reporting to incident commander the weather data. The whole team is empowered to say 'hey, we need some more help here.' "

It's important for firefighters to get a break, because when temperatures are this hot, it can be well over 100 degrees inside the firefighters' suits, which can weigh as much as 65 pounds.

"They're fully encapsulated, their body just doesn't breathe," Larson said. "The sweat mechanism continues to kick, but the body isn't able to cool because you're encapsulated."

He said all their firefighters are trained on evaluating others and knowing the symptoms of heat or cold stress.

"The incident commander or training officer would take steps such as providing a more formal rehabilitation area, where we could include more water or activate our cooling techniques," Larson said.

I asked if he could give some examples of what firefighters feel like battling a blaze when it's so hot outside.

"Generally speaking as rule of thumb, let's say it's 70 degrees, a firefighter working in full suit, we tack on an additional 10 degrees, and if they're in direct sunlight, we tack on another 10 degrees," Larson said. "Theoretically it could be 90 degrees to that firefighter even though the ambient temperature is only 70."

Now, start with 90 degrees on the outside. Imagine how hot it is to them on the inside!

"We recognize their protective ensemble does not allow the body to cool property, and the fact you're in direct sunlight, it exacerbates that problems," Larson said. "Temperatures like this, the incident commanders are anticipating that heat, they're calling in additional resources in order to quicken up the rotation, so we don't have firefighters going 20, 30, 40 minutes without a break. It would be far, far too much on their bodies."

To illustrate this point, Larson said during training exercises, all outdoor full-suit training ends when it gets to 89 or 90 degrees.

"From an emergency response standpoint, we don't get that choice," Larson said.

In those cases, they deploy a special rehabilitation unit that comes equipped with pop-up tents for shade, chairs, and special cooling chairs -- "Where the arm rests go, they're actually tubes filled with cold water and just the simplicity of bare skin putting into that (cold water tube), it lowers your body core temperature fairly rapidly," Larson said. And they have heat misters available for the super-hot days:

In addition, volunteers -- usually retired firefighters -- come with drinks and food for fluid and electrolyte replacement. And, of course, paramedics come to the scene so firefighters are constantly being evaluated in the heat.

Sometimes, firefighters get a needed break simply by just getting out of their suit.

"Get them out of their gear. Get their helmet off. Find a shade area or put up a pop up (tent), get them in the shade, get them some fluid, check the heart rate, and see how their they're doing," Larson said. "If there's a question about are they compensating well? Are they recovering well? That would prompt an evaluation -- sometimes a visual, 'hey, are you OK?' Sometimes maybe more like a heart rate and blood pressure work (and check): Are we dealing with potential dehydrations? So we take a lot of precautions with that."

McDonald said the goal is to get firefighters' body temp to cool below 100.6 degrees.

"They have to stay in rehab until get their body temperature down, because the body is working so hard, we have to make sure they're hydrated," McDonald said.

So, how long typically do firefighters go before taking a break?

"Generally in cooler weather times, we operate under a 'two bottle rule.' Once they go through two air bottles, it's about 15-20 minutes of full-on physical work," Larson said. "In a situation like (a 90 degree day), the incident commander may decide, OK, after one bottle you go to (be checked out), and that's why we call in extra crews so that way, we have the replacement so we don't have to force the firefighters to expend that level of energy. It's a tremendous about of energy. When you start talking about the thermal stresses on them, the gear we wear, it does not allow your body to cool because you're fully encapsulated, and we want them to cool down so they can get back to work.... (We ask) lots of questions to them before they get returned to a position at a fire scene where an incident commander would allow them go back into the fray."

Larson gave a good example of just how much energy they expend.

"If you jumped on a treadmill and you went 15 -20 minutes, you'll probably get your heart rate up to 150, 160, maybe 170 range. But jump off the treadmill and 5 minutes later, you're back down into the 80s or 90s," Larson said. "The thing with a firefighter, once you're in all this gear, just the sheer fact of being in all that gear and walking a distance, you can see a heart rate jump from 70-80 up into the 170 range very quickly, so we have to be cognizant of these type of things. The thermal strain on the body and their ability to think clearly and make good decisions because once your body heats up like that, you run the risk of getting into some of the heat illnesses like heat stress, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Then, you can be in a true medical emergency. Once we get up into heat stroke, that is a true big time problem."

So, when Mother Nature turns up the heat, firefighters turn on their watchfulness, and again ask residents to please be aware of their surroundings and keep firefighters' jobs to a minimum.

"I would just ask that the citizens are aware of what’s going on around them," McDonald said. "Please, please, please avoid doing anything- outdoor burning, cigarette butts out the window -- anything like that that could potentially start that fire."

Photos: New stunning pics of Earth from International Space Station

Photos: New stunning pics of Earth from International Space Station
Subtropical Storm #Ana churns off the East coast of USA. #Wx from @Space_Station. #YearInSpace (Photo & Caption: Capt. Scott Kelley / NASA)

Seattle was oh-so-close to having an officially wet July

Seattle was oh-so-close to having an officially wet July

The skies opened up, the rains poured down, and Seattle obliterated a record for wettest July 26th on record with nearly an inch of rain in a few hours!

Were you actually in Seattle Sunday and are wondering, "what's Scott typing about? It rained for a few minutes, but record?!?" you're not alone.

Worldwide strengthening El Nino giveth and taketh away

Worldwide strengthening El Nino giveth and taketh away

You've probably already heard the news, especially if you've read my blog anytime in the past six months, that El Nino is here and getting stronger. Scientists say there is a greater than 90 percent chance of El Nino this winter and an 80 percent chance it lasts into the spring.

El Nino's around here have a hallmark of bringing a winter that's not only warmer than usual but drier than usual as well. This plus the infamous "warm blob" of ocean heat offshore and this winter may already be a lost cause for much in the way of lowland snow and puts serious doubts into getting much in the way of mountain snow either.

This video shows why Midwesterners laugh at Seattle storms

Sunday's scattered thunderstorms probably qualified as a relatively stormy day around, here, especially by Northwest standards. Some spots had some torrential rain, and we had a few reports of hail, none super large though.

Western Washington is fortunate that our marine climate makes actual severe weather systems just about impossible to form; and what thunderstorms we get pale in comparison to just about any other thunderstorm you'd find east of the Cascades.

Restless Convergence Zone brings rain 15 different times to Everett

Restless Convergence Zone brings rain 15 different times to Everett
Photo courtesy Paine Field Web Camera

Not that many around here use an umbrella to begin with, but if we did, they would probably be mechanically worn out this weekend, at least if you lived around Everett.

A weak Puget Sound Convergence Zone hung out over a narrow band of Snohomish County from start to finish Saturday, but like a 2-year-old at a restaurant, it wasn't content to just sit still.

The zone was only a few miles wide and drifted north and south from about the King-Snohomish County line back up into Downtown Everett… and back again as the corresponding north and south winds pushed back and forth like a tug of war.

Weekend rain showers dripping with irony for Seattle

Weekend rain showers dripping with irony for Seattle
Chart showing number of times Seattle has had measurable rain on each day from Jan. 1, 1893- Dec. 31, 2014. (Data courtesy: National Weather Service. Chart courtesy: Evan Schmidt)

We're in the midst of one of the hottest and driest summers in recent memory. Seattle hadn't had measurable rain since June 28 and hasn't had significant rain since June 1. The last time it rained on a weekend? April 25.

So naturally, one of the weekends it rarely rains is the one weekend when it does rain.

The last weekend in July is statistically the driest in Seattle with the first weekend in August no slouch. It's rained only about 9-12 times in the past 122 years on those dates -- or about once every 10 years.

In soggy Seattle, that's the best odds you can ask for. That's why Seafair's biggest events are this time of year; why Torchlight Parade is this Saturday evening and why savvy locals know to rush to book their outdoor wedding or party the instant the last weekend in July becomes available on the venue's calendar.

Why has it been so warm so long? This picture says 1,000 words

Why has it been so warm so long? This picture says 1,000 words

We're coming up on 17 months in a row with above normal temperatures on average, and several of those months have been the warmest on record in Seattle. This summer, we've had dozens of days in the 80s, already the second-most 90-degree days on record with August still to come. The coldest low temperature we've had in the entire month of July? 57. The average low is 55.

People have been asking me why has it been so warm for so long? Well, NOAA did me a favor and sent out this handy graphic which shows exactly why: The warm Pacific Ocean.

Sharknadoes -- COULD THEY HAPPEN HERE?!?

Sharknadoes -- COULD THEY HAPPEN HERE?!?
Screen grab from SyFy preview video for movie "Sharknado"

Scott's note: It's SHARKNADO DAY! Sharknado 3 airs tonight at 9pm on the SyFy Network. To celebrate, the blog today has encore entry from when the first one aired two years ago. And if you want to watch the latest installment along with me, I'll be Live Tweeting during the show on my Twitter page @ScottsKOMO

Story originally published July 12, 2013:




Social media and water coolers were abuzz Friday with the next DVD blockbuster sci-fi (emphasis on the 'fi') movie "Sharknado" that aired on the Sy-Fy channel Thursday night.

But this jaw-dropping (jaw-clenching?) story brought up an important facet of meteorological studies that have been historically and woefully underfunded: The science of shark-infested tornadoes from hurricanes that strike the Pacific Coast of the United States.

Seattle warm stretch to last into October ... 2016?!?

Seattle warm stretch to last into October ... 2016?!?
Photo: Mark T. Davis

OK, I admit it, I'm cheating the headline. It's nearly the same headline I wrote last month in my blog, only it said September instead of October. But the new monthly maps have been updated, and -- surprise -- the warm blobs in the forecast remain intact through not just this fall, but next autumn as well.

In the short term, there still remains very high confidence the Northwest will have a hot remainder of summer, and, well, it was sure right about the first part of summer.

We've already had as many hot days so far this year than we average in an entire year, shattered the record for hottest June on record, and the first half of July in on the pace to set the same record (although there are some signs July will back off the flamethrower switch after the weekend. More on that in a bit.) In fact, if the second half of July were to mirror the first half, we'd be talking about hottest month in Seattle history! (But as I just teased, that seems unlikely.)

Friday Night Lights: Another incredible summer sunset

Friday Night Lights: Another incredible summer sunset
Photo: Greg Johnson,

Smoky skies make for surreal scenes around Northwest

Smoky skies make for surreal scenes around Northwest
Photo courtesy YouNews contributor lfsleos

If the smoky skies this week haven't been noticeable to you during the day, it's certainly been a factor in the evening sunsets, as it's been turning the sun a brilliant red the last few nights.

The smoke is coming from a massive wildfire burning near Pemberton, B.C.

Since Sunday, the upper level winds have been out of the north, pushing the smoke south across the border into Washington as you can see on this satellite image from Wednesday.

(Note the chalky gray streaming out of the mountains just across Vancouver Island on the B.C. Mainland and sinking south:)