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Pardon our smoke

Pete Lahm
Fire and Aviation Management

A picture of a truck driving down a highway with a sign on the side of a road that says, Heavy Smoke.
Air quality impacts from wildfires are now the highest air pollution exposure faced by the American public. (USDA Forest Service photo.)

Where there’s fire, there’s smoke. Air quality impacts from wildfires have become significant health events and are now, in fact, the greatest source of air pollution exposure faced by the American public. In addition, as wildfires increase in duration, communities often face multiple weeks of exposure. In 2018, there were over 3,700 times that fine particulate levels exceeded the 24-hour standard in the Western United States.

To help minimize these impacts, the USDA Forest Service helped create and now leads the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program with the Department of the Interior. Working with federal, state, local and tribal partners, the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station AirFire team uses state-of-the-art smoke modeling and air quality prediction tools to address health and safety risks to the public and firefighters.

The program also maintains a national cache of 38 air quality monitors available for emergency dispatch and deploys 95 trained technical specialists, called air resource advisors, trained in air quality monitoring, smoke modeling, meteorology, air pollution health thresholds, fire behavior and fuel consumption, fire emissions, and communicating about smoke risks and mitigation.

A map graphic that shows all the wildfire incidents, mostly out West, of where Air Resource Advisors have been deployed as part of the Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program.
Each pin above indicates a wildfire incident where Air Resource Advisors have been deployed as part of the Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program since 2013. (Map provided by Forest Service.)

When smoke becomes a concern for public health and safety, air resource advisors are dispatched to a wildfire incident where they analyze and communicate potential smoke impacts to incident teams, public health partners, agency administrators and the public. They develop daily forecasts of projected smoke impacts, including to transportation corridors, when impacts may occur. These forecasts help provide critical information to smoke-sensitive individuals, such as those with asthma or other respiratory or cardiac conditions, so they can reduce their risk of exposure. Residents can visit the AirNow website to check the air quality in their areas.

Interagency fire managers conduct controlled burning on 1.2 million acres each year to reduce fuel loading. Reducing wildfire smoke emissions is a priority in the continued active management of our national forests, including controlled burning. Managers conduct these activities for short time periods when winds are favorable and monitor them closely. Protecting communities, keeping roadways clear, and limiting smoke impacts take precedence. Although controlled burning generates smoke, it creates a significantly smaller problem than smoke generated by a wildfire.

A picture of an air resource specialist using an air resource monitor near a wildfire.
An Air Resource Advisor sets up a temporary smoke monitor to assist in reporting the current air quality conditions and forecast the potential future impacts during the 2017 Pioneer Fire in Idaho. Photo courtesy Andrea Holland, Bureau of Land Management.