Our atmospheric scientist Dr. Yvonne Boose recently hosted a unique webinar session to explore the air quality reporting challenges presented by wildfires, alongside practical solutions for businesses looking to protect themselves and people from wildfire impact.
As the session was one of our best attended to date, we’re sharing some of the transcripted highlights of the live webinar with you (or you can watch it back via on-demand here).
About the Speakers
Ronit: Hi Everyone, my name is Ronit Margulies and I am the Director of Corporate Communications at BreezoMeter, and I will be your host and moderator for today’s webinar.
So I want to be honest with you guys, we had a bunch of different names for this webinar, The Science Behind Wildfire Monitoring Technology, How Businesses Can Deal with air quality reporting challenges, etc, but none fully encompassed the magnitude of the worsening situation and some of the technology being built to tackle some of these wildfire monitoring challenges, so I’ll just say it like this…
We’ve been asking ourselves the hard questions about wildfires and their spread, and how they affect the air quality of millions, we have also been asked all the hard questions about what’s out there and how it can be done. This is that time in the webinar where I introduce you to our expert, Dr. Yvonne Boose:
Dr. Yvonne Boose is an Atmospheric physicist with about 16 years of experience in scientific research, a Ph.D. from the ETH Zurich in Switzerland, the most prestigious technical university in Europe, and amongst the top 10 universities worldwide. She was actually awarded for her Ph.D. thesis as amongst the best 8% in that year at ETH Zurich.
During her Ph.D., she participated in several international research campaigns in multiple countries, amongst them a large campaign in California and Washington that involved 4 research aircraft and a research vessel and was investigating how pollution particles from the central valley affect extreme weather conditions like heavy rainfall or drought conditions.
Guys, I think we brought you the right expert here!
And before joining BreezoMeter, Yvonne spent a month in the high Arctic, where she and her colleagues investigated the reasons for the extreme effects of climate change in this region of the world.
So Yvonne, in your own words, tells us a little bit about what you do at BreezoMeter...
Dr. Yvonne Boose: Yes Ronit, sure - first of all thanks for the nice intro! At BreezoMeter my role is to deliver and ensure the scientific soundness of basically everything we do. For example, I work very closely with our highly skilled team of environmental scientists, algorithm engineers, and data scientists to develop and continuously improve our air quality and fire models. And I keep my eyes open about what's going on in the world of research in these areas and where we can learn from what my colleagues in the academic world are doing.
Total Costs of Wildfires
Ronit: So let’s start with the obvious, we gotta, why wildfires, why now? Peruse those headlines folks, it’s harsh, I know, it's meant to be, because the effects of worsening wildfires are being felt globally and the devastating impact is just getting worse.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, in California alone, the 2020 wildfire season killed over 30 people, destroyed 8,500 structures, and torched a record-breaking 4 million acres of land—doubled the acreage burned in 2018.
Loss of life and property are obvious costs, but not the only ones. According to Reuters, Western U.S. wildfires cost insurers up to $13 billion in 2020. Now, insurers are refusing homeowners insurance in specific areas out of fear of further loss. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, average annual federal wildfire suppression costs spiked from $425 million from 1985 to 1999 to $1.6 billion from 2000 to 2019.
Wildfire Impact On Air Quality
Dr. Yvonne Boose: But that’s not all Ronit, there are also long-term costs that we should be aware of. Wildfires create a toxic mix of pollution that appears as smoke and ash and pollutes the air we breathe, as well as soil and water. And the effect of air pollution on the health of people is both short and long term - it causes irritation of the nozzles and airways and gives you the feeling you are having a cold but in the long-term, it can cause all kinds of respiratory illnesses including asthma and pneumonia.
The related healthcare costs that have been caused by US wildfires between 2008 and 2012 have been estimated in 2017 by the EPA to be $63 billion for short-term exposure leading to premature deaths or hospital admission but the cost of long-term exposure was estimated at $450 billion.
Let me show you what I mean…
The Beckwourth Complex Fire, burning along the Nevada state line, is currently the largest 2021 wildfire burning in the US. What you see here is the air quality in the area. The deepest purple and reds are over the fire perimeter itself, measuring the poorest air quality in the vicinity.
If we zoom out a bit, we see the air quality in most of the Western US is affected by fires burning near and also quite far. In fact, in 2020 the smoke from California and Oregon wildfires affected air quality all the way on the East Coast.
Ronit: Wow these are some harsh realities
Dr. Yvonne Boose: This is a reminder that we need to understand the full environmental picture when safeguarding humans and property. Actually, our colleague Marcus who is located in Utah felt sick the last few days due to the heavy smoke that got to him from the fires on the west coast…
Wildfires are Getting Worse
Ronit: So we know the causes, and I gather that we can show that they are worsening as well. As is shown in this chart from the NYTimes (shows chart) showing a steep increase in active fires over the years, and they are certainly getting larger.
Wildfires are getting larger that’s for sure, in fact, six of California's largest fires in history ignited last year in 2020, and the damage and toxic smoke exposure extended far beyond state lines. And this wasn’t unique to the US last season. The aforementioned Beckwourth Complex Fire, born out of a combination of lightning-caused blazes, already became California’s largest 2021 wildfire, consuming roughly 91,200 acres as of July 12th.
Speaking of seasons, I read somewhere that in the 90s there was actually what you can call a season of a few months and of wildfires, now it’s up to something like seven months out of the year, 7 months! That’s longer than any “season” I know.
A 2021 Cyprus wildfire labeled the ‘most destructive in the island’s history’ claimed over 12,355 acres of forest mere days after starting. One clear question emerges: is climate change an impetus for worsening wildfire seasons? The answer, unfortunately, comes as no surprise.
Dr. Yvonne Boose: There is now virtually no doubt that climate change plays a key role in increasing the number, size, and season of wildfires. By looking at the last decades, we see that all of these factors trend upwards, as does the number of droughts. Climate change leads to rising temperatures worldwide, making extreme weather such as heatwaves, droughts, and thunderstorms far more likely.
A 0.5°C increase in global average temperature might not seem like much. However, this half a degree increase means the probability of extremely hot days per year rises tremendously. Dry hot air functions like a sponge - it sucks humidity from vegetation. When everything is dry, there is less evaporation which means less cooling.
Wildfire Pollution Creates More Lightning
Dr Yvonne Boose: I spoke about lightning becoming more frequent due to climate change. In this respect, there has been a cool study recently from scientists at MIT that could show that wildfires can actually create their own lightning - that in turn of course can spark more fires.
Ronit, do you know how fire creates its own lightning? That’s what this study found out - it’s air pollution - so the fire smoke that forms in a wildfire.
These tiny particles get sucked into the storm cloud and a lot more tiny crystals start forming on them. And the collision of smaller and larger ice particles in such a storm cloud leads to electric charges that then create lightning. I think that’s super cool - but maybe I’m just a bit of a nerd.
Why Are Wildfires So Challenging To Track?
Ronit: So, why are wildfires one of the most challenging environmental hazards to track?
Dr. Yvonne Boose: Yes, that’s a really good question. Ok, let’s go step by step: To predict the risk for a fire: we need to know the weather conditions - so mainly humidity and temperature - which is pretty easy!
But in the end, the spark that lights a fire or not is most of the time from humans (very hard to predict) or lightning strikes - where exactly is also hard to predict.
Then fuel availability, meaning how much biomass, so how much dry old branches lie in a forest and aren’t cleaned up is hard to determine precisely. Especially in largely remote areas.
And then the wind - changes on various temporal and spatial scales all the time. Fire forecast models until recently only took one wind direction and speed into account, very crude, especially because you have a very dynamic system around fires, also due to the energy that’s in the air from the fire. And there are additional factors like the terrain and the vegetation that speed up or slow down a fire.
And did you know that in some areas like Northern Australia there are birds that can contribute to fire spread because they pick up burning branches from the fire and carry them away?
The wind of course also plays a major role in the transport of fire smoke and ash and how air pollution affects people. Now, surely you find lots of smoke around fires and this is really dangerous for anyone close to a wildfire because this smoke is very toxic. But the wind also transported the fire smoke to areas further away from the fire as we saw on those heatmaps I showed earlier.
I mentioned it before and it applies here as well. When monitoring these environmental hazards you really must consider the whole picture, which is quite difficult to achieve. Don't worry Ronit, I'm getting to that very soon.
What Monitoring Exists Now?
Ronit: Great, Yvonne, we can't just give them a cliffhanger and runoff, but maybe we should start with what exists now, and limitations, if any that exist.
Dr. Yvonne Boose: When it comes to fire monitoring for any purpose, whether that be protection services, helping people to avoid areas of polluted air, or avoiding areas where fires are burning if you work for utility services, insurance companies, logistics companies, or you just live in the affected areas you are going to seek out information about the fire movement and how it is affecting the air that you are breathing and in some cases also how it is affecting your business.
So let me start with what exists for information about fires currently, and why they are often limited in the insights they provide.
There are many services that are free to the public that can provide helpful information in specific situations, which are usually governmental sources and data. However, they are often scattered and delayed in reporting. Which means there are gaps in information in space and time.
For example, there is a governmental station at a certain location but the fire just doesn’t get there and passes by a mile away from it, you won’t know that the area is massively affected by wildfire smoke.
Similarly, if that monitoring station just doesn’t measure that pollutant that indicates the wildfire smoke, it will also not see the pollution even though the smoke reached it.
And when you are talking about wildfires, when it comes to the exact location and showing the perimeters of the fire, many data sources are delayed in reporting. Now, real-time information is crucial for your safety when you are directly affected by a wildfire but also for businesses to plan and react accordingly.
There are also sources that rely solely on one technology for monitoring, both of air pollution caused by wildfires but also of the fires themselves.
This can lead to:
If you only rely on one source of data, measurement stations can fail,
Satellites can have a delay
Thus, the more data you have, the more accurate and timely is your reporting on air quality and wildfires. And this is often missing in the available information out there.
Ronit: It’s certainly a complicated public concern, especially in light of worsening wildfire events each year. I wonder, then, if you can tell us what is necessary to provide accurate and reliable information for monitoring fire behavior and its effect on our health?
Dr. Yvonne Boose: Well, full disclosure to the audience, I am going to get into what we do here at BreezoMeter as we’ve built our technology and continue to improve on it in order to meet the limitations of what was available to the public.
We saw what was missing and built our technology to use all available data sources. But that wasn’t enough. We also take into account changing environmental patterns that affect fire behavior and air quality.
What’s particularly important to us here at BreezoMeter is to continuously check our accuracy, validate findings against observational data, and keep improving our algorithms.
This is critical when talking about staying safe from wildfires, one of the most harmful phenomena humanity now faces. BreezoMeter’s heatmap, along with wildfire alerts, provides a visualization of fire behavior and smoke pollution, making it easier to take action accordingly.