13 Nov At the Whims of Mother Nature
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a job based in the outdoors must be dependent on the weather. What’s the saying, you can plan a picnic but you can’t control the weather? Well, this season Mother Nature seems to enjoy keeping us on our toes.
So far this season we’ve had three hazardous heat weeks (over 100 degrees, that’s the high desert for you) a handful of hazardous air quality stretches, and a cluster of unprecedented storms. Now, in the grand scheme of things, this may not seem like much. But big picture? Historically we’re being more affected by the weather than ever before. Previous August high temperatures averaged in the high 80s, with a few high 90s scattered about. This season we’re averaging in the mid to low 90s, with more than a few consecutive days well into the hundreds. When my crew leader started with FIA nearly a decade ago, hazardous air quality was a non-issue, where now we check fire maps and AQI every morning. Four days of rain may not seem like a lot, but that’s more days of rain than we’ve had the entire summer combined. We’re used to four days of rain spread over three months, maximum two hours of sprinkling on one afternoon, not four whole days of continuous, hard rain accompanied by generous thunder and lightning. See what I mean? Big picture.
One of my favorite examples of words which differ in meaning between colloquial and scientific jargon is the discrepancy between “weather” and “climate”. Most people use them interchangeably in conversation, though distinction between the two is pretty central to my point here. Let me save you a trip to the dictionary:
Weather (n) – The condition of the atmosphere at a given place at a given time (basically, what’s going on with the sky now wherever you are)
Climate (n) – The average atmospheric conditions over a long period of time (time is relative but think on the magnitude of decades).
With each passing year of slightly odd weather, significant changes in climate are increasingly evident. Yeah, climate change, blah blah blah. But the reality is those changes have an impact on our work. Inventorying vegetation becomes tricky when it’s all dried out unseasonably early, for example. Luckily this season’s weather isn’t the worst possible, but when you consider how often Mother Nature messed with field work in the not-so-distant past I think I’m justified in being a little dramatic about the oh-so-terrible-heat (and the ever-present sun. How I suffer!). Just wait, I’ll probably be even more dramatic as time goes on.
When planning out plots for the month we put them into weather contingency categories, plots hazardous in hot weather or roads unsafe in the aftermath of a storm, that sort of thing. Plus, we’re always sure to have backups prepped and ready to go if there’s a last-minute change.
One of the best things about my job is the flexibility; My crew values wiggle room, so no pay period ever looks the same and our plans have a permanently implied asterisk. When planning out plots for the month we put them into weather contingency categories, plots hazardous in hot weather or roads unsafe in the aftermath of a storm, that sort of thing. Plus, we’re always sure to have backups prepped and ready to go if there’s a last-minute change.
Our flexibility isn’t limited to work-related factors, we’ve also got freedom to work around life outside of work. This is because our team works on a maxiflex schedule—a rare but coveted option in the Forest Service. Basically, within a pay period we are authorized to work any day, at any time, within a 16 hour daily limit. Beyond that we have the freedom to work on whatever schedule makes most sense for us and the job, though it’s generally preferred that we are available a few times a week during ‘working hours’. Some crews work 6/8, others the more common 5/2/5/2, but an inconsistent daily schedule during field season is a given. For example, last Thursday start time was 0530, on account of hot day and lots of trees, then we rolled back to the lab around 1745. A longer day, little over 12 hours, but it was a good one. On the other end of the spectrum, the miracle happened here in the high desert when we were visited by a full day of rain. We decided to postpone that day’s planned plot in favor of staying dry in the lab and loading the last week’s data, though I spent the morning staring out the window at the storm. Maxiflex schedule perk: I called it a day after only a few hours in favor of basking in the amazing weather by curling up in bed with a book and mug of tea.
So, that’s it for now. We’re half-way through the field season, and I’ve gotten to spend time in some pretty cool places. Half-way done, but we’ve still got fall and winter to look forward to. Lots of cool plots on the docket and, of course, all the weather surprises Mother Nature decides to throw at us next. Flexibility for the win!
Until next time,
(Pictures to come!)