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Updates from Environmental Experts

Fires, Air Quality & the Challenges Faced by Government Monitors

Daniel Elkabetz

The smoke generated by fires contributes dramatically to the levels of Particulate Matter in the air.  To make matters worse, smoke can travel far and wide extremely rapidly.

There are a number of freely available sources for air quality data around the world but fires pose significant challenges to their ability to report reliably on air quality.

Challenge 1: The Location of the Stations

Government sensors are extremely accurate at their precise location but there can be huge distances between the location of the stations, affecting the reliability of air quality information when no station is available. 

As fire smoke moves so unpredictably, it gets frequently missed by monitoring stations.

Further, a station sensor that's in the immediate vicinity of a fire can sometimes be taken offline, preventing reliable air quality reporting when residents need it the most. This happened recently during the California wildfires of 2019.

Challenge 2: The Time Delay

The main purpose of a lot of government collected information is to inform regulatory planning and understand trends over time - when it comes to air quality, this means they usually report information as averages over time. 

The information provided by government station sensors is extremely reliable and accurate for their original purpose, they were not ever actually  intended for real-time decision-making. 

The below examples are screenshots from  US EPA Airnow's website - there is a  stark difference in reporting between their 'real-time' report on the left and their retrospectively given report on the right:

The retrospective picture shows a much more reliable picture of air quality around Santa Rosa and the coast above San Francisco once the fire impact had been taken into account, but this wasn't available at the time of real-time reporting.

Challenge 3: Stations Don't Always Report on Particulate Matter

As smoke impacts Particulate Matter levels so significantly, the air quality levels reported by a monitor that doesn't take PM into account can result in a highly unlikely picture of air quality near a fire.

During a fire in Vancouver, August 2019, BreezoMeter reported poor air quality which was the result of an increase in smoke-related Particulate Matter.

 

Vancouver

During the same event, official fire stations measured good air quality because they lacked PM10 and PM2.5 monitors. They simply didn't see or reflect the high air pollution levels at the time of the fire.

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Key Takeaways

You can never be sure that you're receiving a comprehensive picture of air quality unless you interrogate the data a little more deeply.

Given the known health effects of smoke exposure and inhalation -  which can include worsening respiratory and heart conditions, an increased risk of cancer over time and an increased frequency of asthma attacks - it is important you turn to truly real-time sources of air quality information to really understand the impact of smoke during a wildfire event.

BreezoMeter's Worldwide Smoke Model uses satellites, land cover and meteorological information to understand the precise location, size and stage of a wildfire.

Smoke Model 

In turn this helps us to ensure the air quality we report is as accurate as it can be, even at the time of an active fire. 

Guide to Evaluating Air Quality Data Provider

 

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