Wildfire Smoke Maps: Why are there Differences Between Providers?

With annual wildfire seasons worsening and COVID-19 raising general air quality awareness, more people than ever are now looking to protect themselves from breathing unhealthy air and avoid harmful smoke exposure. However, not all air quality reporting is the same. This can become particularly evident during wildfire season. Here we explore the differences between air quality data providers in detail and explain how to choose the right wildfire smoke map for your needs.

Reliable Wildfire Smoke Maps Can Mean Life or Death During a Wildfire

Wildfire smoke contains a complex mixture of gasses and small particles. But out of all these pollutants, Particulate Matter of sizes below 2.5 ug in diameter (PM2.5) poses the greatest risk to our health during a wildfire event, 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. To make matters worse, forest fire smoke can travel far and wide extremely quickly, making it often impact regions outside the wildfire range. In fact, air pollution can even waft across continents in some cases.

It’s important to note that PM2.5 is just one component of BreezoMeter’s standard air quality visualization, as our air quality maps also report 5 other pollutants by default. However, during wildfires PM2.5 does generally dominate air pollution levels due to wildfire smoke –  we offer businesses the ability to show PM2.5 only heatmaps if preferred. For more details about our air pollution heatmaps, see here.)

Why are there Differences in Wildfire Smoke Maps & Reports of Different Air Quality Providers?

Sources of air quality information worldwide are growing, but many providers still rely heavily on the information provided solely by government monitoring stations. As a result, wildfires pose significant air quality reporting challenges for many of these providers, which can lead to inequality and inaccuracy in the real-time data provided.

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 real-time air quality information when no station is available.

If smoke from a nearby fire hasn’t reached the sensors of the nearest monitoring station, people who use a forest fire smoke map relying solely on station data can find themselves wondering why there is smoke in the air even though the map doesn’t indicate any.  

Challenge 2: Delayed Information

The main purpose of a lot of governmental air quality information is to inform regulatory planning and understand trends over time. This means air quality is frequently reported as averages over time, rather than live air quality information.

Importantly, the information provided by government station sensors is extremely reliable and accurate for their original purpose; however, the information is often not intended for real-time decision-making.

The below examples are screenshots from the US EPA AirNow’s website – as you can see, 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 how the air quality around Santa Rosa looked once the fire impact had been taken into account. But this information wasn’t available at the time of real-time reporting.

Smoke Map Examples

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

As smoke impacts local Particulate Matter (PM) levels so significantly, if a monitoring station doesn’t take Particulate Matter, or both PM2.5 and PM10, into account, an incomplete picture of air quality during a wildfire event can emerge.

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, physical sensors themselves can become damaged during a wildfire, causing them to report inaccurately or not report at all. During an electricity blackout, station sensors can also stop reporting information altogether, creating a major information gap at an incredibly crucial time.

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

How is BreezoMeter the Only Provider to Represent Live Smoke Map Information?

BreezoMeter’s multi-data and multi-model approach enables accurate live smoke map information and air quality reports that go beyond relying solely on station data and don’t fail if one data layer becomes unavailable.

This unique approach means we’re able to provide the most comprehensive real-time air quality information and live wildfire tracking available.

In 2022, after what some experts described as the longest and most destructive US wildfire season, we also reported the live air quality information during the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires near Santa Fe, New Mexico, which have already burned nearly 300,000 acres as of May 15th. 

How Our Wildfire Tracker+ Smoke Reporting Works

To ensure accurate wildfire reporting and reliable wildfire smoke maps, we leverage sophisticated smoke models that consider the following:

  • Satellites that measure different light bandwidths to detect the presence of fire on the earth, the stage of fire & the 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.

Ensure You Choose the Right Accurate Air Quality Reporting For Your Needs

Businesses and organizations have a responsibility to ensure the data they provide to consumers is both reliable and timely, especially with life-threatening environmental hazards like wildfires and toxic smoke.

Through a continual accuracy-validation process, BreezoMeter ensures our wildfire smoke maps and air quality forecasts reflect the real environmental picture with extreme granularity, enabling businesses to enhance digital offerings and provide valuable and actionable information to consumers at the most crucial times.

Learn more about integrating our live wildfire tracking technology and granular smoke maps with online platforms, apps, and connected products.

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Yam Meirovitz
Yam Meirovitz

Business Development Manager @BreezoMeter. I specialize in helping businesses get the most from wildfire tracking intelligence. Contact me at yamm@breezometer.com to get in touch.