University chemist and students take flight with groundbreaking wildfire emission study

A flying laboratory carrying researchers from the University of Montana has the capacity to change what we know about future fires

research, wildfire, smoke, air quality

Above: University of Montana and Colorado State University students in the Aircraft Observations and Atmospheric Chemistry course pose in front of their flying laboratory equipped with state-of-the-art instruments to map the smoke over the western US this past summer. Photo credit: Ali Akherati.

MISSOULA – Most aircraft slicing through the smoke above wildfires either drop water or smokejumpers in an effort to manage fire on the ground. But one plane – a flying laboratory carrying researchers from the University of Montana – has the capacity to change what we know about future fires.

This summer, the four-engine cargo plane spent more than 100 hours slicing through smoke above fires burning in the West, collecting data about the chemical composition of smoke and how it changes over time and travel.

The National Science Foundation National Center for Atmospheric Research C-130 research aircraft was based in Boise, Idaho this summer, but it sampled wildfire plumes in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Montana. The results will provide a new understanding of air quality and how it may affect populations downwind.

Assistant Professor Lu Hu from UM’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, along with four UM graduate students, are part of the research team funded to work on the study through a multimillion-dollar collaborative NSF project called the Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption and Nitrogen, or WE-CAN. It is the “largest, most comprehensive attempt to date to measure and analyze wildfire smoke,” according to the NSF.

Hu and his atmospheric chemistry group are leading the investigation into chemistry and emission of organic pollutants from smoke. The team deployed UM’s new mass spectrometer on the C-130 research aircraft.

This instrument provided real-time measurements of volatile organic compounds in wildfire smoke and more insight into organic gas composition than previously possible. The emissions from wildfires are typically toxic, and they can form ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, which are linked to serious health impacts and regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We expect to observe many toxic species from smoke that had been rarely characterized or reported before,” Hu said. “This unprecedented and rich dataset will help us better predict air quality downwind and understand how fire smoke impacts the climate system.”

Back in the lab on campus, Hu and his team focus to interpret how cloud chemistry, aerosol absorption and reactive nitrogen in wildfire plumes affect air quality, nutrient cycles, weather, climate and the health of those exposed to smoke.

The collaborative study includes researchers from Colorado State University, the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of Wyoming, the University of Washington and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

As part of this project, Hu teaches students aircraft observations in UM’s new Atmospheric Chemistry course. This educational initiative is co-led by Professor Emily Fischer of Colorado State University and Professor Shane Murphy of University of Wyoming. There are more than 30 students across three universities in the course, including seven students from UM.

The class brings the C-130 flying laboratory into a classroom. Students learn about the aircraft-based mission design and flight planning, and they just planned and executed three flights with the C-130 aircraft in early September. Last week, UM students traveled to Broomfield, Colorado, and visited other state-of-the-science laboratories of NCAR along with their educational flight.

Students will present what they learned from their educational flight later in the semester.

“Bringing cutting-edge research into a classroom is very fun and a great experience for both students and instructors,” Hu said. “Opportunities for aircraft observations being taught and experienced in a classroom are almost zero due to reasons like the limited accessibility and perceived high expense. I am just extremely happy that our UM students are involved in this rare and valuable educational opportunity.”


The course is sponsored by the UM College of Humanities & Sciences Toelle-Bekken Family Memorial Fund Award and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

For more information on the project, call Hu at 406-243-4231, email or visit http://hs.umt. edu/luhu.

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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.

8 thoughts on “University chemist and students take flight with groundbreaking wildfire emission study”

  1. Public health science does not change just because the FS along with various environmental groups have gotten themselves into a mess. They cannot wish away or bully the public into accepting the aggressive burn program that these groups have laid out for the downwind populations. In the end, the cost to Medicare, OHI, loss of productivity and early death will force the FS and others to relinquish this wreckless approach to a complex problem. One would think that the early death of wildland firefighters from cancer, heart and lung disease would be enough incentive to find ways to reduce the biomass in our forests without exposing them to additional smoke and life-threatening firestorms. The fact that no one from the FS has approached Congress about changing our outdated log export laws so that we can have a market for low value trees tells you that something is rotten at the top. It’s like the entire FS is forced to go along with “the emperor has no clothes” just to stay in good standing with their platoon.

  2. Following research done by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the opening paragraph of a 2009 news release states, “…The results from the new study also suggest that smoldering fires may produce more toxins than wildfires — a reason to keep human exposures to a minimum during controlled burns.”

    Sometimes prescribed burn fires and smoke continue for weeks or months at a time. Partly because of inversions and the way they burn, the prescribed burn smoke tends to remain close to the ground, which is where humans live and try to breath. Frankly, the human lung is not adaptable to either wildfire smoke or prescribed burn smoke.

    Some have urged expansion of alternatives that have been largely ignored, including developing industries based on small diameter wood. In other discussions some have mentioned that goats and sheep should be considered, and there is no reason to laugh at that. In fact, a Congressional Research Service report updated in 2013 called that type of biological treatment feasible.

    Even creative solutions that don’t break even financially should be strongly considered. According to the Washington Post (Dec. 8, 2017) smoke from wildfires and controlled burns is costing the U.S. tens of billions a year in health care, so in the long run we could very well come out ahead.

  3. Rick, that’s a lovely dystopian perspective, but does your experience have any sources for backup? If smoke from Rx fire is more toxic than smoke from a wildfire, who says so? In which ways is it more toxic — with which particulates or gases? What if the Rx fire is completed in a week and the wildfire burns for two months? And which solutions would you offer?

  4. Keith, in my experience, the smoke from prescribed burns or smoldering fires is more toxic than that from normal wildfires. Thanks, Martha, for your comments to Wildfire Today. If the only solutions offered are controlled burns and “managed” wildfires, health and home values will plummet and society’s medical costs will soar.

  5. Outstanding. Thanks for publishing this, Bill. Like Keith, I’m really curious to learn whether they have made any forays into Rx smoke and what those comparisons might look like.

  6. It’s about time there is some research into “wild”fire pollution. It has been terrible in Central Oregon and in Idaho. We have not only the “natural” lightening fires but added to that is the insufferable human caused fires. When are we going to pass some regulations that limit human access to our public lands to save us form this air pollution? And when do we get some stringent penalties for causing fires? And when do we prohibit the intentional burning by forest”managers” who disregard public health consequences of “thinning”, then slash burning. Why are we exempting public agencies from first doing research into fire practices on public health and then burning any way?
    Surely everybody knows the financial burden our health care system faces for medical treatment of respiratory illness resulting from forest fire smoke.

  7. Very interesting study and I’m interested to see how the results might compare to Rx burning. If such comparisons exist. Thanks!

  8. Wonderful article, Bill. Thank you for providing this informative and necessary forum.
    Cory in California


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