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What Exactly Does a Red Flag Warning Mean?

A red flag warning coming off of a fire weather watch is a forecast notice put out by the National Weather Service (NWS) when relative humidity is low, drought conditions are high, winds are strong, and lightning strikes from thunderstorms are possible. A red flag warning means that conditions are prime for fires to start and spread rapidly.

Wildland fire personnel and land management agencies can also be on higher alert during red flag warnings by preparing staff and ensuring communication channels are working properly. Each region has its own National Weather Service branch which issues warnings depending on the local vegetation, weather conditions, and weather forecasts. Other factors that determine high fire danger include topography, amount of dry fuels like dry grass, the location of the nearest water sources, the air’s moisture content, and warm temperatures.

The point of a red flag warning is to warn the public to minimize outdoor risk factors during critical fire weather conditions. Activities such as starting campfires, using open-flame grills, and using a gun at a shooting range or when hunting should be avoided.

As people who live in high-risk fire zones, the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and fire professionals know very well, fire season characterized by critical weather is getting longer, and starting earlier every year. In 2019, the National Weather Service created a heightened warning called an extreme red flag warning, which requires the same criteria as a red flag warning like strong winds, low humidity, high temperatures, and longer duration. It was used for the first time on October 29, 2019, with the Getty Fire in southern California.

A red flag warning, while virtual now, used to actually be red flags or signs put up by Cal Fire in the 1950s and ‘60s. The warning signs were started in California but most states across the United States used it when fire conditions were dangerous. In fact, according to Cap Radio, National Weather Service branches in Idaho and Oregon are still known to hoist a red flag when fire danger is high.

Everyone should pay attention to red flag conditions and use extreme caution with fire no matter where they live. Preventing fires is always better than fighting them.

Ember Defense | Protect Your Home or Business

Protecting the most vulnerable places in your home or business will prevent it from burning down when a wildfire does happen. That means maintaining defensible space and adding fire-safe vents, gutter guards to prevent build-up, and a roof sprinkler on your home.

It also means taking red flag warnings seriously and practicing fire safety, especially when using fire outside. Read our campfire safety tips here.

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