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California Wildfires: Why are there Differences between Air Quality Data Providers?

BreezoMeter

In the midst of wildfire season and a worldwide pandemic linked closely to the air we breathe, more people are looking to protect themselves from toxic smoke exposure with actionable air quality insights and wildfire alerts. 

However, not all air quality reporting is the same. Whether you’re a business or individual in or near the vicinity of a wildfire, it’s important to ensure the air quality information you turn to is fit for your purpose. 

Air Quality Accuracy During a Wildfire Can Mean Life or Death 

Wildfire smoke contains a complex mixture of gases and small particles but of all these pollutants, PM2.5 poses the greatest risk to our health, especially for vulnerable groups such as heart and respiratory disease sufferers. The smoke generated by fires contributes dramatically to the levels of Particulate Matter in the air and to make matters worse, smoke travels far and wide extremely rapidly.

 

BreezoMeter Wildfire Alerts & Smoke Map

 

 Rapid Smoke Spread of California's Multiple Raging Fires

BreezoMeter is able to capture the live shocking impact of the current California wildfires on air quality. The below visual covers a period of just 62 hours, serving as a stark reminder that smoke pollution knows no state borders:

 

United States (75)

Why are there Differences in the Reporting of Different Air Quality Providers? 

Sources of air quality information worldwide are growing but many providers still rely heavily on the information provided by government monitoring stations. As a result, wildfires pose significant air quality reporting challenges for many of these providers. We explain more below.

Challenge 1: Stations are Far Apart

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.

Challenge 2: Delayed Information

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. 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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Challenge 4: Wildfires Cause Blackouts and/or Physical Sensor Damage

In addition to the usual delays and coverage issues associated with station-only reporting methods that we’ve described above, station sensors themselves can become damaged during a wildfire outbreak, causing them to fail to report accurately or not to report at all. During a blackout, station sensors can also stop reporting information altogether. 

This happened during the California wildfires of 2019 and again in June 2020 during the huge Arizona wildfire.

What about low cost sensors?

How is BreezoMeter the Only Provider to Capture Live Smoke Information?

BreezoMeter’s multi-data and multi-model approach means we’re uniquely placed to provide accurate information even when sensor information or one data layer becomes unavailable. We factor information from numerous data sources such as real-time traffic satellites, active fires, meteorological input, and more.

This unique approach means we're able to provide the most comprehensive real-time air quality information available.

Air Quality Poor Breezo-min

In order to ensure accurate wildfire reporting and reliable wildfire smoke maps, we also use a sophisticated smoke model:

 

  • Satellites that measure different light bandwidths to detect the presence of fire on earth, the stage of a fire & type of Particulate Matter that is emitted.

  • Land cover information to understand the type of vegetation that is being burned. 

  • Meteorological conditions like rain and wind to learn about the direction and amount of smoke in a particular area. 

  • Chemical processes that might alter the types of pollutant, and pollutant levels downwind of a fire.

Businesses & Organizations Using Air Quality Data

"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” -  Warren Buffet 

Businesses have a responsibility to ensure the data they use is reliable. If you're currently using or looking to integrate air quality data, we recommend you request evidence of an accuracy-validation process and external validation from your provider. 

If you’re interested to learn more about BreezoMeter’s own accuracy validation and insights, we’ll be glad to take you through it. 

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