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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Ire Forest Service Science Protects Public Health by Forecasting Potency and Path of Smoke

October 2017

U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

Rain is essential, but floods can be devastating. The same holds true for fire. Fire helps to keep forests healthy, but when it is too big, too hot, and out of control, fire can be catastrophic. Fire is an annual occurrence in some U.S. landscapes, particularly those in the West, and the Pacific Northwest is no exception. In 2016 alone, more than 3,000 wildland fires burned more than 1 million acres across Alaska, Washington, and Oregon (Source: National Interagency Fire Center, Year-End Fire Statistics). Pacific Northwest Research Station fire science is helping communities live alongside fire.

Smoke is one of the most visible byproducts of a fire and poses a threat to public health. It contains harmful gases, like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane, as well as particulate matter—small particles that irritate people’s eyes and lungs, causing burning, coughing, and bronchitis and aggravating underlying respiratory ailments. Particulate matter from smoke also reduces visibility, making smoke a real safety concern for highways and airports. These potential effects are not limited to those in the immediate vicinity of a fire, either—smoke can drift hundreds of miles, affecting communities far downwind from a blaze.

Smoke is one of the most visible byproducts of a fire and poses a threat to public health and safety. Photo by Kreig Rasmussen, U.S. Forest Service.

Until relatively recently, there weren’t many tools available to help manage smoke. But pioneering research based at the station’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle that began in the 1990s laid the foundation for a tool that now helps fire and smoke managers and public health officials around the country predict and mitigate the impacts of smoke from fires—both prescribed and wild—each year.

The BlueSky Framework

Fires are driven by oxygen, heat, and fuel—a combination depicted in the iconic “Fire Triangle.” Smoke, in turn, is affected by its own set of variables: weather, emissions, fuels, and terrain. Pacific Northwest Research Station scientists combined models and data for these variables into an integrated framework known as “BlueSky” that predicts both the concentrations and trajectories of smoke.

“BlueSky brought together the great work of numerous scientists across the wide array of disciplines that are needed to simulate fire emissions and smoke,” said Sim Larkin, a research meteorologist, leader of the station’s AirFire Team, and BlueSky’s developer. “By combining these disparate datasets and models, BlueSky has made it easier and more practical to create predictions of where wildland fire smoke will go and what impact it will have.” The AirFire Team, based at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory, consists of meteorologists, engineers, and air resource specialists who study the relationships between wildland fire and weather, climate, and air quality.

BlueSky was launched in 2002 and is now used across the country—regionally and nationally—to support air quality forecasting during wildfires and to plan prescribed burns in ways that reduce accumulated forest fuels. BlueSky is at the core of numerous real-time prediction systems, including the one used by the National Weather Service, the agency charged with producing the country’s official smoke forecast. The tool’s high-resolution forecasts are used by state and local public health agencies to help them plan ahead to protect the health of the public and firefighters. These forecasts are also critical for transportation safety—low visibility caused by heavy smoke can make it make dangerous to drive or fly in the affected area.

When fire season is underway, AirFire scientists use BlueSky to provide custom, daily smoke forecasts and information that is used by fire professionals and public health officials to inform communities about anticipated smoke conditions. The team also supports Incident Command Teams, the on-site professionals managing firefighting efforts, deployed across the country by providing direct technical consultations and forecasting tools.

In 2016, the team supported 22 wildfire incidents. So far in 2017, they’ve backed fires in over a dozen states across the country—Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, West Virginia, Georgia, and Florida.

Smoke Science Support By Proxy

As the number of fires in the wildland-urban interface increases, so, too, does the need for timely, science-based smoke information on wildland fires. Since 2012, the AirFire Team has helped train more than 60 Air Resource Advisors (ARAs), technical staff who work on-site at a fire to predict smoke effects, establish monitors, and communicate their findings and suggestions for reducing potential smoke exposure to air quality and health officials and the Incident Management Team. Air Resource Advisors are critical members of the Forest Service-led Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program who help translate and apply smoke science for practitioners. BlueSky is an important part of the ARA toolkit, used to generate the daily smoke forecasts that support the incident command teams deployed at wildfires.

In 2011, there were a handful of dispatches of ARAs to wildfire incidents in the United States; in 2016, there were more than 50, with additional requests that went unfulfilled. Responding to the growing need, the AirFire Team co-led another series of ARA training sessions to increase capacity for the 2017 fire season.

Air Resource Advisor Wendy Wagner sets up air monitoring equipment.

The Future of Smoke Forecasting

Although it has been in use for the past 15 years, BlueSky is regularly updated by the AirFire Team.

“The framework is ever-evolving to reflect the latest advances in fire science,” said Larkin. Some of the latest improvements to the tool include updated fuel loading maps and a central processing core that makes the most of modern computational power such as cloud computing.

With an eye toward the future of smoke forecasting, the team is also participating in several large-scale multi-agency field experiments, including the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE), which is supported by the interagency Joint Fire Science Program and will provide AirFire with findings that will help the team to better model the complex fire-atmosphere interactions that occur in the fire plume.

An aspen seedling emerges after a stand-replacing fire on Utah's Fishlake National Forest. Photo by Kreig Rasmussen, U.S. Forest Service

The 2017 Fire Season

“AirFire supported an unprecedented level of activity this summer in terms of things like Air Resource Advisor deployments and smoke outlooks,” Larkin said. “Our models and tools were used by a large number of fire incidents, and information we helped to create has been distributed widely to the public, being broadcast on TV and published in newspapers.”

By the Numbers

  • Over 90 Air Resource Advisor deployments—all trained in part by AirFire and supported in their work by AirFire.
  • Approximately 1,100 Smoke Outlooks (forecasts) issued by ARAs—supported by AirFire and using AirFire tools.
  • Over 110 temporary air quality monitor deployments. These temporary monitors went into locations where permanent monitoring networks are absent, helping underserved communities. Additionally, these temporary deployments captured the bulk of all “hazardous” air quality days, the worst category, recorded in the United States
  • Over 3,000 smoke dispersion model runs and just under 1 million trajectory calculations performed.

AirFire-built tools and maps had:

  • More than 1.4 million visits
  • Over 260,000 unique visitors
  • Peak usage over 115,000 hits in a day (on Sept 5, 2017)
Photo by Kreig Rasmussen, U.S. Forest Service.

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