Wildfire smoke affects air quality in California and Oregon

PM2.5 air quality smoke
This map was updated July 29, 2019 showing raw PM2.5 instantaneous data which comes from low-cost sensors which are not calibrated, quality controlled, do not have standardized citing criteria, and have a lifetime of only 1-3 yrs.

Smoke from the Milepost 97 Fire south of Canyonville, Oregon is significantly affecting air quality in Southwest Oregon and Northern California. In some areas near Medford, Oregon it has reached the “Very Unhealthy” air pollution level which could affect the entire population, especially anyone active and people with respiratory disease.

wildfire smoke map forecast
The forecast for the distribution of wildfire smoke at 8 p.m. PDT July 28, 2019. Click to enlarge.


Information about the Milepost 97 Fire in southwest Oregon.

Wildfire smoke and air quality maps, November 13, 2018

wildfire smoke forecast November 13 2018

Above is NOAA’s forecast for the distribution of wildfire smoke at 6 p.m. PST November 13, 2018. Much of Central and Northern California has severely compromised air quality and is in the “unhealthy” category.

Below is air quality data from AirNow.gov for Tuesday November 13, 2018:

Air quality for November 13, 2018
Air quality for November 13, 2018.

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

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 lu.hu@mso.umt.edu or visit http://hs.umt. edu/luhu.

Winners announced for contest to build deployable device to monitor wildfire smoke

Wildland fires produce significant air pollution, posing health risks to first responders, residents in nearby areas, and downwind communities.

The existing air quality monitoring hardware is large, cumbersome, and expensive, thereby limiting the number of monitoring stations and the data that is available to help officials provide appropriate strategies to minimize smoke exposure. They can’t be easily moved to the latest areas that are being affected by wildfire smoke.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency in association with the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and other agencies issued a Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge to spur the development of a transportable device that could measure some of the byproducts of combustion produced by vegetation fires. They offered prizes for the first and second place entries of $35,000 and $25,000.

The goal was a field-ready prototype system that could be set up near a fire that was capable of measuring constituents of smoke, including particulates, carbon monoxide, ozone, and carbon dioxide over the wide range of levels expected during wildland fires. It was to be accurate, light-weight, easy to operate, and capable of wireless data transmission, so that first responders and nearby communities have access to timely information about local air quality conditions during wildland fire events.

The winners have been announced:

Sensor Challenge Winners

Jason Gu of SenSevere/Sensit, a co-developer of the first place winning system, said they have a number of units in the field now being tested under real world conditions. They also want to install them near existing air quality monitoring stations to ensure that the data from the new design is comparable to data from the old-school stationary equipment that has been used for decades. When they are satisfied with the results, manufacturing will be the next step.

smoke monitor air quality sensors

The SenSevere/Sensit unit has a battery that can last for three weeks but will have a solar panel to keep it charged. The device can transmit the data via a cellular connection or a radio. All of the sensors are made by SenSevere/Sensit. Their smoke sensor uses a blower that pulls air through a filter which removes the larger particles, and then a light beam detects the remaining very small PM2.5 particles, the ones that can be ingested deep inside a person’s lungs.

The video below has more information.

Some areas in the Northwest have “unhealthy” air quality

The primary cause is smoke from wildfires

Air Quality Index smoke
Air Quality Index, August 21, 2018. AirNow.gov

Smoke from wildfires continues to plague areas of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming. According to AirNow.gov, the five cities in the United States with the worst air quality Tuesday were:

  • Cheeka Peak, Seattle-Bellevue-Kent Valley, and Bellingham in Washington;
  • Yreka, California; and
  • Shady Cove, Oregon.

The information below from the National Weather Service reinforces the advice that the least expensive dust masks available at the local hardware store (or a bandana tied over your face) provide almost no protection from smoke. The microscopic particles in smoke from vegetation fires are so small that they cruise right through a mask that may work fine for filtering out dust from working with wood, for example.  As they said, choose a mask called a “particulate respirator” that has the word “NIOSH” and either “N95” or “P100” printed on it.

map wildfire smoke
The forecast for the distribution of smoke from wildfires at 6 p.m. MDT August 21, 2018.
Red Flag Warnings, August 21, 2018
Red Flag Warnings, August 21, 2018.

Wildfire smoke, air quality, and Red Flag Warnings August 20, 2018

wildfire smoke map
Prediction for the distribution of wildfire smoke at 6 p.m. MDT August 20, 2018.
Air quality, Oregon and Washington,
Air quality, Oregon and Washington, August 20, 2018.
Red Flag Warnings
Red Flag Warnings, August 20, 2018.