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'Forecasts are the backbone of fire behavior': Boise-based meteorologist heads to Australia for incident management assistance

Incident Meteorologist Heath Hockenberry arrives in Victoria, Australia early Tuesday morning. There, he will forecast wind currents for firefighters and aircraft.

BOISE, Idaho — The first thing that comes to your mind when someone says "meteorologist" might be KTVB's Larry Gebert, Bri Eggers, Rick Lantz, Jim Duthie, or any other broadcast meteorologist, but there are many types of meteorologists also doing important work.

Heath Hockenberry is an incident meteorologist and program leader for the National Fire Weather Program. 

Hockenberry said he's one of approximately 100 incident meteorologists in the U.S. Nine incident meteorologists were deployed to different parts of Australia on Monday to help with the wildfires there. 

Hockenberry said the Australian wildfires are mostly contained now, but there's still a lot more work to do, and that begins with keeping fire crews safe in Victoria.

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"Incident meteorology is actually a specialized service of the weather service," Hockenberry said. "It's not an office environment. We go out, we tent, we camp there with the firefighter crews and the incident management team."

Incident meteorologists analyze data starting at 5:00 every morning, and update the forecasts until they brief fire crews at 6:00 o' clock.

'We do a second briefing sometimes at 9 o' clock and we provide a weather watch and make sure nothing is gonna surprise the firefighters," Hockenberry said. "We keep the firefighters safe and the planes in the air."

The fires have calmed down a lot since they began rapidly spreading across the continent in September.

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"They received rain from New South Wales from a tropical system, but it's drying out the forecast," he said. "I would characterize what's coming up as more spiky nature. Things will flare up very much like things around here in August."

Hockenberry will be in Victoria, Australia for six weeks. He hits the ground running early Tuesday.

"Forecasts are the backbone of fire behavior. How the fire's going to move, how it's going to spread, how fast, how slow, " he said. "To be there is to be engaged. To be there is to know what the firefighters are experiencing."

This isn't Hockenberry's first incident assignment.

He's assisted countless times in the U.S. and faced the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010. There, Hockenberry said he worked 80+ hour work weeks and focused on forecasting lightning patterns to keep crews safe.

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Hockenberry has been to Australia several times for incident management.