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.

Smoke from wildfires continues to plague areas of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming. According to, 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.

Smoke from Thomas Fire affects air quality in California

Above: Wildfire smoke forecast for 6 p.m. PST December 10, 2017.

(Originally published at 3:30 p.m. PST December 10, 2017)

The Thomas Fire is having a significant effect on the air quality in California. Some areas downwind of the fire to the northwest had “unhealthy” conditions at 2 p.m. Sunday, including Santa Barbara and Goleta. Forecasts show that smoke and ash will continue to affect the southern part of Santa Barbara County for the next several days. The Santa Ynez Valley and the northern parts of the County will see increasing impacts.

Thomas Fire smoke air quality
Satellite photo showing smoke from the Thomas Fire December 10, 2017.
Thomas Fire smoke air quality
Air quality at 2 p.m. PST December 10.
Thomas Fire smoke air quality
Air Quality in Santa Barbara County at 2 p.m. PST December 12, 2017.

15,000 firefighters are battling 83 wildfires in the United States

Above: Map showing heat detected on wildfires in the northwest one-quarter of the U.S. by a satellite, August 10-11, 2017. NASA.

(Originally published at 12:34 p.m. MDT August 11, 2017)

Over 15,000 firefighters are assigned to 83 active wildfires in the United States which have burned a total of about 942,000 acres. In addition to fire overhead and incident command post personnel, they are staffing 369 hand crews, 678 fire engines, and 141 helicopters. So far this year over 6 million acres have burned in the country.

As you can see below, the air quality compromised by smoke is not getting any better. Again, four cities in Idaho and Washington are four of the top five locations in the country with forecasts for the worst air today.

smoke air quality index

wildfire smoke
Wildfire smoke, 5:16 a.m. MDT August 11, 2017.