Contact: Joseph Sullivan
NOAA News Releases 2003
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Charles M. Baker, a lead forecaster at the NOAA National Weather Service forecast office in Riverton, Wyo., has been selected as a 2003 recipient of the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal for actions during the Daley Wildfire Complex in June 2002. Scheduled for presentation at a Sept. 18th awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., the Gold Medal is the most distinguished employee award presented annually by the Commerce Department. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce.

Baker teamed with fellow forecasters Andrew J. Bailey and Eric Helgeson at the Rapid City, S.D., forecast office in providing forecast information that directly saved the lives of some 40 firefighters the evening of June 29, 2002.

Diligently watching developments of wild fires and weather conditions in an area of northeast Wyoming covered by the two NOAA Weather Service offices, Baker and the Rapid City forecasters simultaneously realized the perils posed by an approaching cold front. The weather forecasters realized thunderstorms along the cold front had produced an outflow boundary that extended well ahead of the front. Surface observations from the area indicated the front would arrive earlier and with much stronger winds than previously anticipated, with a drastic shift in wind direction.

Baker and the Rapid City crew contacted dispatcher Trina Reid at the Casper Dispatch Center with the new information, providing her with crucial information about the earlier arrival and higher winds and wind shift accompanying the cold front. Reid immediately radioed incident commanders in the area to send their firefighting crews to safety zones because a dramatic change in wind speed and direction would occur within 10 minutes. All the incident commanders heeded the warning, disengaged firefighting crews and moved them to safety zones.

Within minutes of 40 firefighters reaching the safety zones, winds increased from 20 mph to 70 mph and switched direction 180 degrees. According to U.S. Forest Service reports, flames ran through three miles of tinder-dry ponderosa pine, juniper, sagebrush and grass in less than two hours.

Campbell County Fire Department Incident Commander Rich Hauber said, “If those meteorologists hadn’t been on the ball, and if Trina hadn’t received that call and made an immediate radio transmission, none of us would be here today. None of us could have escaped the awesome power of that fire.”

“Charles, Eric and Andy exhibited great situational awareness in a vital National Weather Service program,” Joe Sullivan, meteorologist in charge of the Riverton forecast office said. “Their experience and attention to detail was directly responsible for saving 40 lives. You can’t do better than that.”

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