Smoke from Fourmile fire provides bonanza for researchers, bad news for firefighters and the public

smoke in Moscow
A woman wears a mask in central Moscow to "protect" herself from smoke from fires outside the city. August, 2010. Photograph: Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters

When the Fourmile Canyon fire was burning west of Boulder, Colorado in September, 2010, Jim Roberts, a chemist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, was surrounded by something he had previously studied at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Science Laboratory in Montana — smoke, and lots of it. In Missoula he used a new instrument they had built, a custom mass spectrometer, to examine the levels of isocyanic acid in the atmosphere and in smoke. Isocyanic acid has been difficult to detect with conventional measurement techniques. At Missoula, he measured the levels of the chemical in smoke generated when the researchers burned vegetation in the lab and in cigarette smoke.

When the Fourmile Canyon fire started, Roberts had the mass spectrometer at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

Here is an excerpt from the Daily Camera:

Isocyanic acid easily dissolves in water, which makes it possible for the acid to also dissolve into moist tissues in the body, including the lungs. The full health effects of exposure to isocyanic acid in the air aren’t fully understood, but the chemical has been linked to cataracts, cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Last September, the researchers had the opportunity to measure the presence of the acid in a real wildfire. On Labor Day, the Fourmile Fire began burning in the foothills west of Boulder, just a few miles upwind of the state-of-the-art atmospheric instruments housed at NOAA’s campus on Broadway.

“Boulder has a world-class atmospheric chemistry building and only once in its lifetime is it going to have a full-on hit from a wildfire,” said Joost de Gouw, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Science. “So just everyone in that building turned on their instruments.”

CIRES is a joint institute of the University of Colorado and NOAA.

The sensitive new spectrometer used in Missoula also picked up the isocyanic acid in the plume of smoke from the Fourmile Fire.

More information

Fourmile fire near Boulder
Smoke from the Fourmile fire as imaged by the MODIS satellite on September 6, 2010.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.