Wildfire, Air Quality, and Public Health

EM – June 2020: This month's focus topic addresses wildland fires and air quality, with four articles by U.S. federal and state agency authors. 
by John D. Kinsman

Wildfires across the world are front page news; in the United States, the wildfire challenge is most acute in the western states, with forest management practices and climate believed to be important influences. Wildfires emit particles and gaseous precursors that react to form fine particles (PM2.5), ozone, and other pollutants. Wildfires cause many of the highest PM2.5 pollution events. Burning man-made structures can release hazardous air pollutants. Air pollution from wildfires and smoke impairs visibility and affects human health, most notably of vulnerable populations such as those with heart and lung disease, or asthma; the elderly; firefighters and supporting staff; and workers, exercisers, and children outdoors. Although not the focus of this issue of EM, wildfire impacts carbon stored in vegetation and soils.

Monitoring and projecting wildfire, smoke, emissions, and air pollution are essential but difficult. Wildfires can start suddenly and spread rapidly. Winds can transport smoke and air pollution long distances and often many fires are burning in different locations concurrently. Modeling air quality is challenging due to uncertain emissions inputs and factors such as complex chemistry, terrain, and meteorology. Yet, significant advances are underway in monitoring and modeling and the same data and tools used to address wildfires help in planning related to National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), regional haze, and controlled, prescribed burning with its lesser smoke and emissions impacts.

The issue's first article by Peter Lahm and Narasimhan Larkin of the USDA–Forest Service, entitled “The Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program,” discusses this Forest Service-led program, which focuses on wildfire risks to public health and safety, risks to transportation safety, and risks to the health and safety of fire personnel (including both firefighters and supporting management positions).

Our second article by EPA's Erika Sasser and Peter Lahm of the USDA–Forest Service, on “Reducing Risk from Wildfire Smoke,” describes wildfire smoke's complex mixture of combustion emissions that contribute to elevated levels of air pollution and cause an array of adverse health outcomes.

The next article, “Protecting Air Quality and Public Health During Wildfires” by Erin DeMerritt of the BAAQMD, examines the air quality and public health impacts of wildfire smoke in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, and details strategies in place to prepare the community and minimize such impacts. 

The fourth article comes from Kirk Baker, et al. of EPA on “Illustrating Wildland Fire Air Quality Impacts Using an EPA Developed Emission Inventory.” The article discusses emissions inventories and air quality modeling, while providing several case studies.

Lastly, the 2020 Annual A&WMA Critical Review, “Wildfire and Prescribed Burning Impacts on Air Quality in the United States” by Daniel A. Jaffe, et al., also focuses on the topic of fire and air quality. The 50th Annual Critical Review draws on a team of leading experts to address wildfire, air quality, and health issues, including key uncertainties and unknowns. 

Continue reading the full June 2020 issue of EM.  


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