Abstract

Strong winds generated by thunderstorm gust fronts can cause sudden changes in fire behavior and threaten the safety of wildland firefighters. Wildfires in complex terrain are particularly vulnerable as gust fronts can be channeled and enhanced by local topography. Despite this, knowledge of gust front characteristics primarily stems from studies of well-organized thunderstorms in flatter areas such as the Great Plains, where the modification of gust fronts by topography is less likely. Here, we broaden the investigation of gust fronts in complex terrain by statistically comparing characteristics of gust fronts that are pushed uphill and propagate atop the Mogollon Rim in Arizona to those that propagate down into and along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Using operational WSR-88D radars and in-situ observations from Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) stations, 122 gust fronts in these regions are assessed to quantify changes in temperature, wind, relative humidity, and propagation speed as they pass over the weather stations. Gust fronts that propagated down into and along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico were generally associated with faster propagation speeds, larger decreases in temperature, and larger increases in wind speeds compared to gust fronts that reached the crest of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. Gust fronts atop the Mogollon Rim in Arizona behaved less in accordance with density current theory compared to those in the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. The potential reasons for these results, and their implications for our understanding of terrain influence on gust front characteristics, are discussed.

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