SEATTLE, Wash. August 4, 2017. As winds this week blew smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning in British Columbia into the Pacific Northwest, many cities in Washington and Oregon are seeing one of the most visible byproducts of fire—smoke. Residents may be smelling and feeling it, too; air quality across some locations has deteriorated so much that the air is currently designated “unhealthy” to breathe in these places.
“Usually, we think of smoke being a problem for rural areas near wildlands in the Northwest,” said Susan O’Neill, a research air quality engineer with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. “But we have an unusual situation at the moment that is causing widespread smoke impacts from Canada south through western Washington and Oregon.”
O’Neill, who works out of the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle, is a member of AirFire, a team of Forest Service scientists and technicians who study fire emissions, fire-weather interactions, and smoke transport. They work and share information and tools with researchers and agencies in the United States and Canada who run smoke forecasting systems on an international scale. AirFire’s research informs the air quality forecasts produced by these systems.
The team’s research is also the basis for the software that generates the air quality maps featured on the Washington Smoke Blog and Oregon Smoke Blog. These maps feature data from permanent and temporary air quality monitors, which are deployed specifically in response to wildfires. Additionally, many of the posts featured on these blogs use tools and products developed by AirFire to predict and communicate smoke impacts from wildfires.
Although the fires in British Columbia have highlighted the local value of the team’s work, AirFire supports fire operations across the country through the Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, a Forest Service-led multiagency partnership. The program provides smoke modeling and other smoke and air quality tools custom-designed for people deployed to fire lines and dealing with smoke issues.
The team also partners with national agencies—like NOAA—and international agencies—like Environment and Climate Change Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and the University of British Columbia—to help communicate smoke impacts from wildfire outbreaks like the one right now in British Columbia.
Note to reporters—AirFire’s scientists are available for interviews throughout the 2017 wildfire season.