FEMA warns Texans about driving into smoke

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued a news release which includes a statement saying:

Many Texans have lost their lives during severe wildfire seasons because a wildfire overtook them in their vehicles.

The release goes on to advise motorists that they should never drive into dense smoke or they could become a fire fatality. Makes sense, of course, and it’s always good advise.

We are aware of smoke-caused fatalities occurring on highways in other places, including Florida in 2008 and also during the Cedar fire in San Diego County in 2003 when residents were killed while trying to evacuate from the Wildcat Canyon Road area.

File photo of the wreckage from the January 9, 2008 crash on Interstate 4 in Florida caused by smoke from a prescribed fire. The Ledger.

Wildfire smoke map, June 15, 2011

Smoke map, 1557, 6-15-2011
Smoke map, 1557, 6-15-2011. The red dots are fires, while the smoke is green (thin), yellow (moderately dense), and purple (dense). NOAA

Today’s map showing the distribution of wildfire smoke across the U.S. looks a lot better than it has since we looked at it last. Part of the reason is that at least 60% to 70% of the Wallow fire is not actively spreading. Wallow fire officials are calling it 20% contained. (Update: the official containment was raised to 29% at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.)

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s definition of “Containment”:

The status of a wildfire suppression action signifying that a control line has been completed around the fire, and any associated spot fires, which can reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread.

Some fire teams confuse that with Control, which the NWCG defines like this:

The completion of control line around a fire, any spot fires therefrom, and any interior islands to be saved; burned out any unburned area adjacent to the fire side of the control lines; and cool down all hot spots that are immediate threats to the control line, until the lines can reasonably be expected to hold under the foreseeable conditions.

Smoke, and air quality in Springerville, AZ

As we have seen from maps over the last couple of weeks, the smoke from the wildfires in Arizona is being produced, if not in unprecedented amounts, at least in huge quantities that is affecting residents far and wide.

Even though the evacuation order for Springerville and Eagar has been lifted, Chris Sexton, Apache County health director, said the smoke problems may continue for weeks.

Because of the health problems associated with smoke from the Wallow Fire, Apache County Public Health Services District and the Emergency Operations Center warns residents of Eagar and Springerville that it would be best not to return to their homes until the concentration of smoke diminishes.

The link above references the web site for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, where data from a new air quality monitoring station in Springerville is available. Here is an image from the site where they display readings for PM 2.5 (more info), which is Particulate Matter smaller than 2.5 microns, particles of smoke so small that they can only be seen with an electron microscope:

Springerville PM2-5 chart from web site
Springerville PM2.5 chart from AZ DEQ web site

I was intrigued that the data went off the chart every day, so I downloaded the raw data and ran it through Excel. Click the chart below to see a larger version.


Springerville PM2-5 chart Excel
(Click to enlarge) Springerville PM2.5 chart. Raw data from AZ DEQ.

The chart at the AZ DEQ web site only goes up to 500 ug/m3, but the actual data for Springervilles exceeds 589 ug/m3 for the last four days, the only data available for Springerville at the web site. On June 10 it maxed out at 1,139. By the way, “ug/m3” stands for micrograms per cubic meter of air.

During that same four-day period, the PM2.5 levels at Prescott never exceeded 20, and at Flagstaff the maximum recorded was 30.

The AZ DEQ web site appears to reference a ug/m3 level of 40 as being the U.S. EPA 24 Hour National Air Quality Standard (NAAQS). On June 10 the maximum reading at Springerville was 28 times the maximum for the standard.

I don’t think the AZ DEQ is intentionally hiding the extreme nature of the air quality in Springerville. It is likely that when they designed the web site they didn’t expect the readings to ever exceed 500.

So far today at 3:40 p.m. MT, the maximum PM2.5 reading in Albuquerque, NM has been 68.

Below is today’s map showing the distribution of wildfire smoke across the U.S. and Canada. The red dots are fires, while the smoke is green (thin), yellow (moderately dense), and purple (dense).