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Smoke billows from wildfires that scorched Eastern Washington in August 2015. Photo: Ben Brooks, Flickr Creative Commons.
Smoke billows from wildfires that scorched Eastern Washington in August 2015. Photo: Ben Brooks, Flickr Creative Commons.

When wildfires blaze, the smoke matters.

It matters to firefighters battling the flames on the ground and those pouring water and flame retardants from helicopters or planes. It matters to babies, children, older people and those with respiratory conditions including asthma. And when it gets bad enough, the smoke threatens everyone.

Just ask Mary Small, community health and preparedness director for Chelan-Douglas Health District.

When the smoke was thick a couple of summers ago, “you could see the air,” Small said. Instead of breathing gases, “you were breathing material.”

Sim Larkin, leader of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab’s AirFire team in Seattle.
Sim Larkin, leader of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab’s AirFire team in Seattle.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab in Seattle is trying to clear the air — or least tell people where to find breathable conditions. The lab has built a program called BlueSky that takes data and modeling from numerous sources and generates predictions about where wildfire smoke will travel over time and the chemical nature of the emissions.

“The goal here is to try and bring together as many of these disparate systems as we can, and make them easy to connect and talk to each other,” said Sim Larkin, leader of the lab’s AirFire team.

BlueSky’s predictions rely on weather forecasts, data on a fire’s size, what kind of material it’s burning, the moisture of the fire’s fuel and the terrain. The program provides general smoke forecasts as well as detailed reports predicting where smoke will travel, providing essential information to incident commanders fighting fires and health officials. The forecasts are available nationwide and in Canada.

And the lab recently teamed up with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin building an app so the public can look up smoke conditions for their precise location.

The app will allow someone to use their smart phone’s camera to estimate the visual range where they’re standing, which is affected by the amount of smoke in the air. The app will also take into account the humidity in the area and calculate the amount of pollution at a hyper-local level. They’re hoping to start testing the app next year.

“When there is a wildfire there is a lot of demand for information and we’re hoping this will fill that,” said Susan Stone, senior environmental health scientist with the EPA in North Carolina.

Plume of wildfire smoke from recent blazes displayed on the BlueSky site.
Plume of wildfire smoke from recent blazes displayed on the BlueSky site.

The app is just the latest tech tool underdevelopment from the Forest Service lab. Back in 2002, Larkin helped build BlueSky and by the next year, the program was generating daily smoke forecasts. Larkin, a climatologist by training, had studied El Niño while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Washington. Afterward he wanted to find a real-world application for his expertise, leading him to the Forest Service.

“I was able to come in and use fairly standard computer science techniques to encapsulate and build a reusable and easily modifiable framework that turned into BlueSky,” Larkin explained.

The program has evolved and improved after initial snags and hiccups, said Janice Peterson, an air resource specialist for the Forest Service in Seattle.

“It’s really come into its own in the last couple of years,” Peterson said. “It’s really singing. It’s working just so wonderfully and the folks here at the lab literally support it 24-7 during wildfire season.”

And there’s growing demand. This summer’s Okanogan Complex Fire burned more than 500,000 acres in north-central Washington and was the largest wildfire on record for the state. With climate change driving temperatures higher, experts predict that the Northwest’s wildfire season will keep getting worse.

Small, the public health official, remembers a particularly bad fire in the Wenatchee areas in 2012 that churned out 30 days of hazardous air conditions.

“It was really hard to live here,” she said. “You kept thinking it would improve the next day. It kept going on and on.”

The smoke prediction reports from the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab’s BlueSky program became essential during that stretch. The Forest Service provided three-day forecasts predicting where and when the smoke plumes would be the worst.

“It was really easy to devise a list of helpful information that the public needed, that schools needed, that tourists needed, that people with respiratory issues needed,” Small said.

The reports were detailed enough to say which days and times of day would be smokiest, allowing people to adjust their schedules accordingly. When Small had to issue advisories not to exercise outdoors in Wenatchee, the reports told her which nearby areas had better air quality and she could guide people there.

Janice Peterson, an air resource specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Seattle.
Janice Peterson, an air resource specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Seattle.

The BlueSky forecasts were highly accurate. “They were like 98 percent on,” Small said. “It was great what they were predicting.”

The smoke prediction reports are also used to set the dates and times of wildfires that officials intentionally set in order to thin the stock of flammable material in a controlled fashion. The fires are meant to reduce the risk of massive, uncontrolled blazes that can burn hotter and cause greater damage to the environment and people.

But there’s a heated debate taking place between the Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about these so-called prescribed burns. As the Seattle Times recently reported, the Forest Service is calling for more of the preventive fires, while DNR is resisting their use — citing rules preventing smoke pollution in settled areas.

Larkin steers clear of the disagreement, offering that he’d like the forecasts from his lab to be part of the solution.

“There is a clear need for advancing and improving the ability to accurately predict smoke from various scenarios,” Larkin said. “That’s one of the things that motivates our research.”

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