Why is a fire weather warning called a Red Flag Warning?
July 6, 2022 12:11 PM   Subscribe

When weather conditions are ripe for wildfires in the US, the National Weather Service issues a Red Flag Warning. All other types of hazardous weather forecasts are more descriptive (e.g. Tornado Watch, Urban and Small Stream Flood Advisory, etc.), Why does a warning for fire weather have this more obscure name, especially in light of the fact that the less imminent ‘watch’ forecast is called a ‘Fire Weather Watch’? Why isn’t the ‘warning’ level called a Fire Weather Warning instead of Red Flag Warning, so the average uninformed person knows what it means?
posted by theory to Science & Nature (6 answers total)

I get what you're saying, but I don't think "Watch" and "Warning" (which, for anyone who doesn't know, mean different things when used by the NWS) are models of clear communication with the public either.
posted by caek at 12:58 PM on July 6, 2022 [10 favorites]

I'm wondering if one of the differences is that wildfires can be directly started by humans (hence the "warning" language being more aggressive in their case because NO SERIOUSLY DO NOT DO THE FIRE THINGS), where things like tornadoes/floods/severe storms are going to happen on their own (so they're more a matter of "take appropriate shelter").
posted by augustimagination at 1:27 PM on July 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm assuming the 'watch' level was introduced at a later date, so then why not call that a Red Flag Watch instead of a Fire Weather Watch? Or update the Red Flag Warning to something that everyone will understand more easily, particularly since the population in fire-prone areas of the West has grown rapidly with newcomers who may not have a familiarity with such things? The NWS has updated lots of other types of advisories over the years to make them more understandable.

(And yeah, the fact that a lot of people don't know the difference between a 'Watch' and a 'Warning' has definitely been a longtime problem too)
posted by theory at 1:28 PM on July 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The NWS Hazard Simplification Project is working on revamping the Warning/Watch/Advisory (WWA) system. One of the main changes is using “plain language headlines” rather than WWA levels for public alerts. For example, the current headline:
“Wind Chill Advisory in effect”
will be replaced with something like:
“VERY COLD TONIGHT: Wind chills between −5F and −10F.”
The 2016 workshop report calls out the benefit of “better, differentiated words” with a specific example of fire vs. red flag, though I couldn’t tell whether the survey included a concrete proposal to change the Red Flag Warning. There is also this paper on the Red Flag Warning in particular that acknowledges problems with the public understanding the name.

The Institutional Survey finds that many different agencies and organizations around the country have the current WWA system encoded in their policies and regulations, which is one reason the simplification project has been very cautious about changing it.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:15 PM on July 6, 2022 [11 favorites]

To highlight the comment from pinochetet's comment, the reason it is called a "red flag" warning and not something more descriptive like "high fire danger" warning is because it used to be that they posted actual red flags at the ranger's office, at camp sites and even at strategic spots visible from the highway. Back in the day, people found out about the warning by seeing the actual red flags, so it made sense to call it a red flag warning.
posted by metahawk at 4:07 PM on July 6, 2022

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