TL;DR — Our recent webinar entitled “Wildfires, Smoke and Air Quality: Building an Air Monitoring Program Fit for Fire Season” highlights the various projects and technological innovations that have been used to better understand how air pollution affects public health during wildfires. By creating public messaging that communicates clear information to residents about how to decrease their pollution exposure, establishing high-resolution monitoring networks that collect neighborhood-level data, and leveraging technology that helps map and forecast pollution during smoke events, we can work to minimize the detrimental impacts of wildfire.

Wildfires, Smoke and Air Quality Webinar

We recently held our webinar called “Wildfires, Smoke and Air Quality: Building an Air Monitoring Program Fit for Fire Season” to focus on how air quality monitoring can be used to protect public health during wildfires. 

Our panelists Janice Lam Snyder, Program Manager at Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District; Bill Hayes, Air Quality Program Coordinator at Boulder County Public Health; and Jennifer DeWinter, VP of Product Management at Sonoma Technology joined us to share innovative projects and technological approaches to protect communities from the excessive air pollution caused by wildfire smoke.

Our webinar was hosted by Sean Wihera, VP of Business Development & Partnerships here at Clarity.

Wildfires in the face of climate change

Though wildfires have long affected the air quality and environmental health of regions across the globe, we have notably seen increasingly large, severe, and more frequent wildfires over the past 10 to 20 years — and this is a trend that is on the rise.

Our changing climate creates a slew of conditions that promote these increasingly severe wildfires, including rising temperatures, drought, and even times of historic rainfall that can put grassland at risk and challenge forest management.

Though wildfires used to only be a concern during the summer and fall seasons, our world today knows no wildfire season — we now see significant fires year-round, challenging how we manage and prevent such devastating fires.

Taking a proactive approach to wildfire

Janice Lam Snyder, Program Manager at Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, joined us to share the district’s work to both respond to and proactively address wildfires in the region as well as the importance of public messaging to keep people safe.

Sacramento, like many other parts of the country and world, has seen increasingly large and frequent fires in the last decade — and especially in the last five to six years. The Mosquito Fire in 2022, the Dixie and Caldor Fires in 2021, the August Complex Fires in 2020, and the Camp Fire in 2018 are just some of the devastating fires the region has recently experienced.

Snyder emphasized the importance of establishing air quality monitoring as a protective measure against pollution exposure due to wildfire. An air quality monitoring network helps to gather data both during and after the event to understand and minimize its negative impacts. 

Snyder notes that it is important to use different types of tools and piece together the information to establish a robust air monitoring network, which may include a combination of:

  • Low-cost sensor data
  • Reference-grade data
  • Modeling information
  • Weather descriptions
  • Satellite photos

One of the most important parts of protecting public health during wildfires is to create public awareness so that people make informed decisions to reduce their exposure.

In order to do so, it is essential to have real-time data, high-resolution spatial coverage, and accessible data — meaning that data is easy to get to, communicate, and understand.

Data also must be coupled with action information, informing the public what they can do to protect themselves and their community.

The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District has developed a number of communication tools, including action charts, that help residents know what to do during times of high wildfire smoke. This information is made available to school districts, businesses, public agencies, and the general public.

The image above is one example of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District’s graphics that work to communicate appropriate action that should be taken during times of high air pollution, such as during wildfire smoke. By linking air quality levels directly to action, residents can work to reduce their exposure.

Snyder also shared more about the Portable Sensors Monitoring Partnership in collaboration with the city of Sacramento, which distributed 200 sensors within the city to residents, businesses, and schools while prioritizing the most high-need areas. By having so many monitoring points around the city, the district is able to collect neighborhood-level air quality data.

Air quality during major fires in Colorado

The state of Colorado is no stranger to devastating wildfires, and the year of 2020 was its worst wildfire season on record in terms of the number of acres burned. The Cameron Peak fire, which took place this year, was the largest wildfire in Colorado history with over 200,000 acres burned.

Panelist Bill Hayes, Air Quality Program Coordinator at Boulder County Public Health, described the situation of the Marshall Fire, which burned in December 2021. Very high winds during the fire — reaching over 100 miles per hour — meant that the fire line moved extremely quickly, up to 60 miles per hour according to estimates. Over 1,000 homes were destroyed, and 2 deaths resulted.

During this fire, residents shared their concerns over the air that they were breathing in. Because so many structures, cars, and other manmade objects burned, air toxins were also a concern on top of the already known harmful constituents of wildfire smoke, such as particulate matter.

Insufficient air quality monitoring meant that residents did not have access to enough data to understand their true exposure.

The image above shows the burn area of the Marshall Fire in relation to the reference monitoring stations operated by the state of Colorado, which only exist upwind and outside of the burn area. When only regional air quality monitoring stations exist, they can often leave key areas without access to air quality data to understand their local pollution levels and exposure. 

Air quality monitoring stations only existed outside the burn area, so their data points were not as helpful in collecting data about the air people were breathing in.

After the fire ended, Boulder County Public Health carried out particulate air sampling using Clarity monitors in collaboration with Denver’s Love My Air Program. The agency placed air sensors in various places around the community and throughout the burn area, such as playgrounds where people would be outside and be concerned about air pollution’s impacts on their health.

The agency eventually ordered more air sensors to establish even more monitoring points with the goal of collecting data at the neighborhood level and assuaging residents’ concerns.

The data from these sensors were also placed on the Love My Air website, which is a public-facing page that allows residents to directly see the air quality in their area. The agency also set up text and email notifications to give clear communication about suggested actions during times of pollution — such as whether it is safe to be active outside on any given day.

Boulder County Public Health plans to re-deploy some of these monitors in other parts of the community, especially in low-income neighborhoods to ensure that they are not being disproportionately affected by low air quality.

Technological innovation to paint a more complex picture of air quality during wildfire

Panelist Jennifer DeWinter, VP of Product Management at Sonoma Technology, joined us to discuss how technological innovations such as ExactAQ can be leveraged to increase our understanding of air quality during wildfires.

Because air quality can change rapidly during wildfires across small spatial scales, it is highly important to improve the accuracy and resolution of real-time and forecasted air quality information during smoke events.

Sonoma Technology’s ExactAQ combines data from sensors, reference-grade monitors, fire and smoke models, and other data sources to generate real-time, one-kilometer gridded maps of both the latest air quality information and 48-hour forecasts, which provides invaluable insight during wildfires.

ExactAQ’s effects have been demonstrated during recent wildfires, including the September 2022 wildfires that affected large regions of the western U.S. and the controlled burns in Monterey County in October 2022.

The image above compares the results of ExactAQ to those of the Hazard Mapping System (HMS) Smoke Density and the NOAA National Air Quality Forecast Capability (NAQFC) for the September 2022 wildfires in the western United States. ExactAQ shows good visual agreement with the other two sources and even reduces its error by 10.1 micrograms per cubic meter compared to the NOAA forecasts. 

ExactAQ has a dashboard, live map, and mapping services, among other features, that can be used to garner more valuable information from wildfire events.

[Sonoma Technology] developed ExactAQ to meet needs from organizations for air quality information at a high spatial and temporal resolution including during smoke events”

— Jennifer DeWinter, VP of Product Management at Sonoma Technology

The technology offers high accuracy and resolution by combining multiple data sources and prediction methods to paint a more comprehensive picture of air quality both during and after pollution events such as wildfire.

Keeping our world safe from wildfires

As wildfires become an increasingly present part of our world in the face of climate change, it is essential that we learn how to manage and prevent wildfires and be proactive about their impacts on public health.

Interested in learning more? View the complete webinar here, and check out our Wildfire Smoke and Emergency Response Air Monitoring Kit here to learn more about how you can establish a resilient air quality monitoring network and protect public health during wildfires.