Monitoring wildfire smoke, to reduce health impacts

Environmental Beta Attenuation Monitors (E-BAMs) are portable particulate monitoring stations, one of the technological tools used to monitor smoke. They can transmit their data via satellite to a central location for analysis. USFS photo.

From the U.S. Forest Service:


Smoke from wildfires can have an enormous impact on the public and on fire personnel, affecting health, interfering with transportation safety and upsetting tourism and local economies.

Trent Procter, like all U.S. Forest Service Air Resource Advisors, is a technical specialist with expertise in air quality science, including: air quality monitoring, smoke modeling, pollutant health thresholds and communicating about smoke risks and mitigation.

“Smoke from wildland fire is a significant source of air pollution. It can pose potential risks to health, visibility, safety and general nuisance problems. Forest managers, fire managers and air resource specialists must address these issues when and where appropriate to minimize smoke impacts to public health and welfare,” he explained.

Exposure to smoke is a concern because a large proportion of wildland fire smoke emissions are fine particulate matter that can penetrate to the deepest parts of the lungs.

Air Resource Advisors can be dispatched to an incident to assist with understanding and predicting smoke impacts on the public and on fire personnel. Whenever smoke is a concern, their objective is to provide timely smoke impact and forecast information and messages based on best-available science.

Technology plays a big part in this forecasting process.

“Satellite images, monitoring data and smoke modeling projections all inform the typical smoke forecast,” Procter explained.

The Forest Service works with partner agencies to deploy “real time” monitoring into communities and locations where instant feedback is helpful in keeping the public and health officials informed.  The monitors transmit the smoke concentrations to satellites and then back to web-based tools that help provide the smoke concentrations seen in the forecasts.

Air Resource Advisors work with multiple agencies to address public health concerns, smoke risk to transportation safety and fire personnel exposure, as well as how to reduce and mitigate smoke exposure.

As the Pacific Southwest Region’s Air Quality Manager, Procter’s work takes him throughout the state, and during this year’s drought-fueled wildfire season, he’s been busy coordinating with other agencies for appropriate response to smoke.

“The success in bringing helpful information to the public in California is a credit to our partners at the air pollution control districts and the California Air Resources Board.  The staffs in these agencies are professional and so very dedicated to an emergency response that helps the public reduce or manage their exposure,” he said.

Before igniting a prescribed fire – a fire being used for specific land management objectives – managers must identify smoke-sensitive areas such as communities, hospitals and highways and use appropriate mitigation and evaluation techniques to minimize smoke impacts. Weather, climate and air quality monitoring data are used by fire managers to customize smoke management techniques as needed in these cases.

“In the case of wildfires, where managers have little or no control over what burns, many times it’s a matter of understanding fire behavior, fuel combustion and suppression techniques,” Procter explained.

“That enables us to understand how those features and management actions will play out with weather forecasts and subsequently allow a credible forecast of where smoke will go — or sometimes, more importantly, where it won’t go.  Our recent efforts to improve wildfire smoke forecasting are allowing us to learn much that can improve our smoke management techniques in prescribed fire projects.”

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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.

4 thoughts on “Monitoring wildfire smoke, to reduce health impacts”

  1. The biggest issue is to often is bureaucrats in the alphabet soup of agencies get involved in wildland fire management when they have little experience. Todays ability to let a fire play out if its natraully occuring via lighting strike or other means is often hampered. Let the FMOs and fire managers on the ground make the descions what is best for long term forest health. Fire is and always has been an amazing tool for forest health. Common sense has been replaced by red tape and utter insanity. Last group I would ever listen to for advice is a corrupt goverment organization like CARB (califronia air resources board).

    1. JJ – are you willing to talk with the 1000+ homeowners that lost their residences in California about “letting fire play it’s natural role”? How about the ranchers that lost hay and pasture lands all over the West? Communities that are dependent on summer recreation visitors?
      Unfortunately in the 21st century, there are no simple answers to the wildland fire problems we face.
      If only the entire West was like Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness or Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, our lives as fire managers would be so much simpler. But unfortunately, ain’t so!

      1. I know there must be all options on the table. When sturtures and property is threatend im all for surpression. However a combination pf supression and management fire tactics should be employeed when avaliable. USFS is starting to invest more in fire use modules as they are no longer relying on logging as a means to maintain overgrown forest. Unfortunately years of overly agressive supression and closing off forest to logging has made forest into overgrown fuel heavy fire jackpots. A combination of fire use and responsible logging would help as a prevention method. Also educating home owners on proper clearance distances from structures can be a key to less structure loss.


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