Utah braces for wildfire smoke from throughout West

Utah braces for wildfire smoke from throughout West

11 June 2013

published by www.standard.net

USA — NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series. Monday’s segment addressed the toxic contents of smoke from Western wildfires and how they pose an ever-greater threat to asthma sufferers and others as range blazes burn longer and more often. Tuesday’s segment looked at how foul winds of Western wildfires often blow toxins into Utah’s already spotty air. Today’s examines the foul winds of Western wildfires often blowing toxins into Utah’s already spotty air.

As if heightened wildfire danger throughout Utah weren’t enough, residents likely also will be negatively affected this year by foul smoke from wildfires in other states.

Predictive maps from the National Inter Agency Center show extremely high potential for wildfires outside of Utah — all around the southern, western and some northern portions of the state.

Winds likely will bring those plumes into Utah, weather experts say.

“The potential is always there for secondary transport for smoke due to sonopic winds (large-scale wind patterns),” said Martin Schroeder, staff meteorologist with the Utah Climate Center.

In general, he said, Utah has a westerly track for wind, which would bring in smoke from California, a state that is experiencing extreme fire danger this year.

Also, Schroeder said a southwesterly flow would both transport smoke from any Arizona blazes and dry out different areas of the state, raising fire danger here as well.

“Fire weather is a pretty complex thing,” Schroeder said. “A micro-scale event can cause an event 100 miles away.”

Ed Delgado, national program manager for predictive services at the National Inter Agency Center, said California is at a heightened danger because of five months of particularly dry conditions.

“The state came out of winter and early spring very dry, and that dryness will continue throughout the summer,” he said. “Unless some anomaly occurs in the next three or four months, we will start to see fire activity increase.”

“We can get a giant complex in California, the right winds going and we could have smoke in Salt Lake,” said Kimberly Kreykes, environmental planning consultant with the Utah Division of Air Quality.

“It is a Western fire thing. It is a major regional issue. It’s more than just particulate that will fall. … We also will have summertime ozone.”

Experts said chemical reactions in smoke can increase ozone levels that impact people’s breathing hundreds of miles from a fire.

Gabriele Pfister, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., is working on new models using data from last year’s fires to better understand fire dynamics.

“We’re only beginning to understand wildfires’ potential impacts on people and ecosystems, not only nearby but also potentially far downwind.”

Satellites regularly plot smoke plumes moving hundreds and thousands of miles. Siberian fires send pollution to the Pacific Northwest. Smoke from fires in Arizona and New Mexico drifted more than 1,000 miles to the Midwest two years ago. Smoke from Central American fires frequently reaches Florida.

Pfister’s is among several scientific teams working on new computer models to predict how wildfire smoke will move and affect health close to a fire and many miles away, particularly for areas that have no air quality monitors on the ground.

In all, less than a third of all U.S. counties have such monitors.

In San Diego County, Calif., a team of researchers from Michigan Technological University, led by fire emissions expert Nancy French, just completed a two-year analysis of wildfires in 2007, when more than 300,000 acres of brush and more than 1,500 homes burned. A half-million residents were ordered to evacuate.

The researchers found their fire models could predict more than a day in advance which areas would be most impacted by smoke — predictions confirmed by a county network that tracked hospital emergency department visits.

“This is really useful in telling us who is most at risk during a major fire,” said Jeffrey Johnson, a senior epidemiologist at the San Diego Health and Human Services Agency who also worked on the project.

He said the model could help guide evacuations, shelter arrangements and a host of other decisions before, during and after fires.

The researchers think the modeling system could eventually be used in communities around the country to offer more precise, timely smoke warnings.

The National Weather Service and state and local public health and emergency management officials monitor weather conditions influencing fire and smoke extensively and cooperate on warnings.

But great uncertainties remain about how fires will progress and how to assess the risk from smoke for the young, elderly, infirm and otherwise healthy people.

Most states and many local health departments in fire-prone regions have guidelines for issuing warnings, but residents and local officials have to use their best judgment in deciding when to shelter or evacuate, when to cancel outdoor events or close schools.

“Getting a forecast to people on the ground in enough time to plan a response is difficult, because fire conditions can change so rapidly,” said Michael Brauer, associate professor of environmental hygiene at the University of British Columbia. “They want people to respond when they tell them to leave, and they don’t have that many chances to mess up if they cry wolf.”

Satellite images also have tracked ways in which smoke can get caught in Utah’s valleys.

Later in the fall, smoke can be a particular concern when the sun isn’t as hot, causing this phenomenon.

Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, said there are situations when smoke can get trapped in valleys and basins, usually at night and in the fall when the heating from the sun is less intense.

“While this can happen along the Wasatch Front, it’s not that common. Mostly, we just are in smoke from remote fires.”

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