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U of M Fire Lab | Photo by Henry Worobec/University of Montana

The Kind of Wood That’s Burning in a Wildfire Determines The Air Quality, Right?

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Lately our air quality has been compromised by haze high in the sky and smoke at the surface from wildfires. This has played havoc with our air quality. Having one or maybe two days free from haze and smoke is a real bonus. I don’t know about you but I always thought that the type of tree and other plants that were burning in a wildfire determined just how bad our air quality would be. A recent article I read has proven that notion to be incorrect.

The article, posted August 9, 2018 on, is titled “Wildfire Temperatures Key to better Understanding Air Quality.” The Cooperative Institute for Researching Environmental Sciences (CIRES) is located at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The subtitle of the article is “New study informs NOAA-NASA campaign investigating western U.S. wildfires.”

Latest Wildfires
NWCC Wildfire Map 8.18.18 | Image by NWCC

We here in the Pacific Northwest already know the problems caused by wildfires which include burning trees, brush, grassland, destroying buildings, injuring and in some cases killing people, and polluting the air with haze and smoke.  The above map lists 15 wildfires occurring in Oregon.

Wildfire Gas Emissions
Wildfire Chemical Emissions/ Temperatures | Image by Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics

This study turns the idea that the air quality is dependent on the kind of tree or other foliage that is burning on its head.  Quoting the article “If we know the temperature of the fire, we can better estimate what comes out of it, independent of what’s burning,” said Carsten Warneke, a CIRES researcher at the University of Colorado at Bounder Working in the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory and a co-author on the paper, published July 3 in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. “With that information we’ll be able to simplify the models, better predict the downwind impacts wildfires, and get much better forecasts for air quality.

Fire Temp/Air Quality
FIREX-AQ | Image by

Their study showed that the fires burning at lower temperatures produced more tiny particles that can be inhaled by people and cause haze and other pollutants in the atmosphere. The CIRES and NOAA scientists, in conjunction with NASA scientists, are working on a multi-year project called NOAA-NASA FIREX-AQ or Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments Experiment and Air Quality. The purpose of the project is “to better understand the air quality and and climate effects of wildfires.”

Fire Lab
U of M Fire Lab | Photo by Henry Worobec/University of Montana

The scientists used a special U.S. Forest Service fire lab in Missoula, Montana beginning back in 2016 to conduct their experiments. They burned over 100 fires in the controlled laboratory environment. They burned various types of trees and brush found here in the West and used sophisticated equipment to determine which volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are produced by fires burning at different temperatures. Back to the article “These results completely change the way we understand VOC emissions from wildfires, says James Roberts, a NOAA scientist and FIREX-AQ principal investigator. “Instead of looking at the type of fuel burned, we can focus on the temperature of the burn, something that can potentially be measured from satellites.”

BST S2 model-300 dpl Drone | Image by Nighttime Fire Observing Experiment Nightfox

The researchers will be using various aircraft from the DC-8, Twin Otters, and even an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to study Western U.S. wildfires. As Roberts says “By doing our homework in the lab, we have identified what’s in emissions and the actual process of how emissions are made. We now need to go into the field to understand real fires.”

The benefits of this research could be better ways to let the public know what the various fires are spewing into the air we breathe and how we could better protect ourselves.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].


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