Going with the wind

The recent Kenai Peninsula wildfire gave me a better understanding of wind.

I’ve known since my years in Kid World that fires like wind. The first time I got down on hands and knees and blew on glowing tinder to get a fire going, I knew I was onto something.

Fire thrives on oxygen. The more wind, the more oxygen.

Wind dries out fuels such as grass and twigs, making fire spread like … well … like wildfire.

When wind blows hard enough, it can throw big chunks of burning material into the air and cause spot fires, or “spotting.”

Wind is unpredictable, and forecasts of it should be considered with a raised eyebrow.

Fires travel with the wind, so during the recent wildfire I focussed on the direction the wind was blowing. I live in Sterling, north of the river. For the first few days, the fire was reported to be “burning south” and “moving south.” Driven by a north wind, it was moving toward Tustamena Lake — good news for residents of Sterling and Soldotna. However, the fire was still burning on its north flank, even though it wasn’t moving much. It could be stopped there, if firefighters had enough time to establish a firebreak before the wind swung around and blew from the south. Without that firebreak, the fire could go north. The river would slow, but not stop it.

I knew that fire during the 1947 burn had jumped the river. Given that knowledge, my mental weather vane was up for any news about wind speed and direction. But the winds were fickle, first blowing from the north, then the west. Then the reports became confusing. One report was that “northern winds” had pushed the fire “in a couple of different directions.”

Northern winds? I knew that a north wind comes from the north, but I was unsure whether a “northern wind” came from the north or the south. And toward what “different directions” had it been pushed?

Later that same day came news that the weather forecast was for a north wind moving 15-20 miles per hour. That was good news, but then then it went bad: “However, Friday evening the wind is forecasted to change direction and will be moving from the southwest, according to weather service data. While that would push the fire to the southeast, winds are supposed to blow at about 5 miles per hour.”

That report worried me. A southwest wind wouldn’t push the fire to the southeast, but toward the northeast. Toward Sterling and Soldotna. I slept uneasily for a couple of nights.

As it turned out, fire did jump the Kenai River near the Kenai Keys, but it didn’t get far before firefighters stopped it. Employing water, retardant, firebreaks and backfires, they stopped it all along its northern flank.

Before this fire, I’d never given much thought to the various words used to describe wind. What’s sometimes confusing is that the English language makes special exceptions when it comes to wind.

Take the word “northerly.” Northerly means a northward position or direction. “Jim headed in a northerly direction.” However, when a reference is to wind, northerly means blowing from the north, as in “that northerly wind has a bite to it.”

The North Pole lies toward the north, but the north wind blows from the north.

The North Star is toward the north, but a “norther” comes from the north.

The South Pole lies toward the south, but a “southerly” wind comes from the south.

If you say the wind is blowing “northeastward,” you’re referring to a direction the wind is blowing toward, not the wind itself. On the other hand, a northeast wind would come from the southwest.

At this point, if you’re confused, I’ve done my job. Of course, all of this stuff about wind direction becomes moot if you don’t know north from south, but that’s meat for another column.

 

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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