Research released in early June in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres highlights smoke plume particulate data from wildfires in 2013. Its findings show that wildfire smoke emits three times as much small particulate matter – referred scientifically as PM1, meaning particulate measuring 1 micrometer across – than previously thought. Common forms of regulated air pollution are measured at PM2.5.
Scientists collected this initial data in 2013 flying directly through smoke plumes of three separate wildfires in a NASA-owned DC-8 equipped as a flying air quality laboratory.
The concern by those focused on respiratory issues is that this much smaller particulate matter can deposit more effectively into human lungs as the smoke settles. Dust in lungs can lead to blood pressure, heart attack, and cancer concerns.
Interestingly, during these flights, the researchers also flew through the plumes of prescribed fires and found much lower levels of PM1 particulates.
While prescribed burns are obviously much smaller then fully-involved wildfires, that is also a lesson the researchers offer in their report. As described to me by a local fire official some time ago, prescribed fires permit you to put a small amount of smoke in the air when you want it, with specific mitigation goals, instead of a wildfire putting a massive amount of smoke in the air and burning everything, when you don’t want it.
In a scientific sense, one of the researchers, Greg Huey from Georgia Tech, explains in the Atlantic article that, “because wildfires burn everything in their path, but do it incompletely and inconsistently, they produce an especially dirty and complicated chemical pattern.”
Further research is needed because of the small scale of this initial research coming from three fires in western states.
In a related video I saw three days later, Utah’s KSL News Chopper 5 is collecting similar particulate data from smoke updrafts as it captures images from current Brian Head Fire. This data goes to the Atmospheric Sciences Department of the University of Utah, as they assess smoke pollution impacts on neighboring Utah cities.
Photo Credit: NIFC public photo library, smoke, pulled 29June17