From Alberta, Canada, to Michigan, USA. That’s how far the plumes of smoke traveled in a few short days, from July 21 to July 24. Smoke from wildfires has staying power.
Laura Thapa, a graduate student at the University of California Los Angeles and member of the FIREX-AQ forecasting team, has been monitoring the smoke from the northern Alberta fires over the last few days. She and her team first took notice of the plume on July 21, when its leading edge had already traversed half of the approximately 2000-mile journey to the Great Lakes by July 24.
Tracing a plumes’ journey accomplishes two main goals for FIREX-AQ. “It lets us verify the forecast models,” Laura said. The forecast team wants to improve and fine tune a number of smoke transport models that use weather and other data to project where smoke plumes end up.
In particular, scientists want to know where the fine particulate aerosols called PM 2.5 go. The microscopic particles are one of the biggest health hazards associated with fires. When breathed in, they can lodge deep in the lungs, causing irritation and coughing. Long term exposure has been linked to higher rates of respiratory and heart problems.
“I have asthma, so that’s my vested interest,” Laura said. It’s also the vested interest of the U.S. Forest Service, which leads the interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency that closely monitors PM 2.5 and tries to limit exposure to communities downwind of fires.
The other goal tracking plumes serves is much more practical during the campaign. As the fire season progresses, background smoke from fires-in-progress may be present in the air when a new fire starts and a new plume develops. Keeping track of plumes as they travel helps tease out what fires contributed to the smoke the science team is measuring in the DC-8.
“Understanding the transport is important for seeing what’s going on,” Laura said.
The DC-8 Goes the Distance, too
The FIREX-AQ team will be in Boise through August 18, but for the Communications team our coverage is at an end. For now.
After Boise, the DC-8, Twin Otters, Mobile Labs, and everything else FIREX-AQ brought with them to Boise will travel to Salina, Kansas, to study prescribed agricultural fires which have different fuels and emissions.
Each morning Amber Soja gets up at 5:00 a.m. to check the fire weather. She’s an associate scientist from the National Institute of Aerospace based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, one of the lead forecasters for FIREX-AQ with one of the most important jobs: distilling the information from the National Weather Service, the National Interagency Fire Center, and other satellite and model info into a short list of fires for the DC-8 to visit the next day. All by 8 a.m.
Understanding fire weather is a big part of the job. Fire weather is the term used to describe weather conditions favorable for fires to start or burn, a mixture of high temperature, low humidity, zero to low rainfall, and high winds.
“Fire weather is the potential to have the fire behavior that we want to see,” Amber said. Hot, dry and windy conditions build over the course of a day’s worth of sunshine, so that where fire weather conditions are present in the morning, fires in the same area are likely to become active in the late afternoon. And for the FIREX-AQ science team, active usually means a smoke plume to fly through.
At 10:00 a.m., Amber presents her team’s short list of fires to the science team at the daily morning briefing. This is the meeting where decisions are made about where and when to fly the DC-8. In a neat table projected on the wall, the fire short-list also takes into account the types of fuel on the ground – the second major ingredient for wildfires, and one that can change the chemistry of the plume whether its grassland or timber – as well as location, size, and what action is being taken to monitor and fight the fire, among other considerations.
While Amber is putting together the fire outlook, David Peterson from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California, is working with a team of meteorologists and forecasters to monitor and forecast weather systems. It’s a slightly amped up version of a local weather newscast, and includes current conditions and outlooks for high and low pressure systems, moisture, and cloudiness that could hamper the DC-8. By 9:00 a.m. they’re analyzing their model results, and at the 10 a.m. briefing, David shares the forecast with the science team.
He’s also on the lookout for the potential for a different type of weather – weather generated by the fires themselves.
“A fire is a heat source. It’s creating a strong updraft,” David said. The smoky air above a large, hot fire shoots upward like going up a chimney, and in the void left behind, more air is sucked in from the sides, which gets heated and lofted. When this fire-generated circulation lofts the smoke high enough, from 15,000 to 30,000 feet, and there’s moisture at the higher altitudes, pyrocumulonimbus clouds can form – also known as smoke-infused thunderstorms.
These billowing, smoke-polluted storms don’t really produce rain, but lightning strikes are possible. They can also, in some cases, loft a large smoke plume into the upper atmosphere (stratosphere), where it can circulate around the globe, similar to the impact from a volcanic eruption.
With each daily forecast, David is on the lookout for conditions that might produce pyro-clouds and thunderstorms. In the coming week, the weather over the Shady Fire looks promising, but only time – and a little luck – will tell.
The FIREX-AQ campaign is flying out of Boise, Idaho. The choice of location was no accident. Boise is also home to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the nerve center of all major firefighting operations for the United States. Earlier this week, we took a tour.
“NIFC is not an organization, it’s a place. Each big bureau dealing with fires has people here,” said Kari Cobb, our tour guide with the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of Interior that hosts the center.
In addition to the Bureau of Land Management, the agencies working together to put out major wildfires, support the crews in the field and assist with other disasters include the National Association of State Foresters, the USDA Forest Service, the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, the United States Fire Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The center is located next to the Boise Airport – across from the Idaho Air National Guard where the DC-8 is stationed for FIREX-AQ. Airport access is essential for the helicopters and planes used to deliver crews and supplies to firefighting teams in the field, and also for reconnaissance planes that survey active fires with infrared instruments to detect hotspots hidden by smoke plumes.
The Radio Cache
In order to coordinate, you need to be able to communicate. NIFC’s Radio Cache ensures that’s possible. They manage, repair and refurbish the 11,000 handheld radios and radio repeaters that get delivered to firefighters in the field. They deliver the equipment in kits that are already pre-programmed to be ready to plug-and-play as soon as they arrive. While all the radios are ultimately managed and dispatched from Boise, they pre-position equipment closer to likely fire activity and other disaster-prone areas.
The Great Basin Cache
When you’ve got people fighting fires for weeks on end, you need a place for them to sleep, eat and manage day-to-day operations. Kari described the giant warehouse that makes up the Great Basin Cache as the “Costco” of wildland fire management. It’s the largest of the 16 caches set up in different parts of the country, and has everything needed for the Incident Command Posts, from tents, sleeping bags, tables, and coffee, to firefighters’ personal protective gear, and the shovels, Pulaskis (axe plus flat-head scraper), MCleods (a type of rake) and combi-tools (with a shovel and pick head) they use to clear vegetation and dig fire breaks.
There are plenty of people willing to jump out of perfectly good airplanes, but not nearly as many willing to jump out of a plane next to a wildfire. In the United States, there are 450 in fact, and 80 to 85 of these smokejumpers are stationed out of Boise at any given time. Currently most of the Boise smokejumpers are at out-stations, located across the West to be closer to fire-prone areas.
They’re delivered to remote fires by Twin Otter aircraft and jump from 3000 feet in special gear made of Kevlar that each smokejumper has made themselves (they’re required to know how to sew and use a sewing machine.) They jump with one main parachute, a reserve parachute and two days of personal gear. Once they’re on the ground, the plane drops supply kits for two firefighters for two days. Their regular firefighting gear is on under their jump suit, which they stash before getting to work. Once they’ve done their initial assessment and work at the fire site, relaying info back to base, they hike out.
National Weather Service Boise
Weather conditions – wind, humidity, rain and temperature – are fundamental to understanding what a fire is doing and where it will go next. The National Weather Service station in Boise monitors and forecasts weather for southwest Idaho and western Oregon. They’re staffed 24 hours a day, and use satellite imagery and models to forecast not only the weather, but fire weather – conditions favorable for burning. They also track lightning strikes, which are one of the main causes of wildfires in the region.
National Interagency Coordination Center
Putting it all together is the National Interagency Coordination Center – effectively a national dispatch center, which manages the support resources and sends them into the field where they are needed. Fire management begins locally, at the town or county level. When their capacity for fighting a wildfire is exceeded, they go to their regional support center, one of eleven spread throughout the country. When their resources are exceeded, that’s when they call on the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise – who then pulls crews from other regions, and sometimes Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to help put out the fires. They also supply information, helicopters and water tankers, and handle getting food and showers in place at the Incident Command Post.
“It’s nice to have a flight plan to deviate from,” said DC-8 pilot Tim Vest at the debrief on Thursday night. It was just after 10 p.m. and the DC-8 had just returned from a 6-hour flight over a fire they weren’t planning on visiting.
The original plan for the afternoon was to fly to eastern Washington State, where several fires were burning in clear skies. But wildfires are tricky things. That morning during flight planning, the Shady Fire, less than 30 minutes away by air in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, didn’t look like it was going to generate an impressive smoke plume. But a half hour before take-off at 4 p.m., after the instrument teams were aboard and the DC-8’s doors were closed, the scientists staying behind to monitor the flight from the ground pulled down new satellite images.
“They said, take a look at the Shady Fire once you’re in the air,” said Carsten Warneke from the University of Colorado working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. He’s one of FIREX-AQ‘s project scientists and was sitting in the DC-8’s cockpit jump seat as Thursday’s flight mission scientist.
Flying north on their original plan to the Washington fires, Carsten – and everyone else with an eastern-facing seat – looked out the window. Shady’s smoke plume was big and billowing. The hot and dry conditions of the late afternoon had invigorated the fire and helped to loft its smoke thousands of feet into the atmosphere.
“It was very exciting,” said Carsten. Measuring smoke was why the science team was flying. “But it was also a surprise. We had a completely different flight plan, but then there was that plume.”
So, less than half an hour after take-off, the flight plan changed.
Fortunately, the Shady Fire had been the second fire on the list for the previous day’s flight, although they’d only made one pass over its then-low-lying plume. Tim Vest and his co-pilot, Dave Fedors, both from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, were able to use the that plan once they redirected.
Flying over a wilderness area was a huge advantage. With no other air traffic, aside from a pass from a plane gathering a hotspot survey for the U.S. Forest Service, the pilots had a lot of room to work with. They guided the plane in a series of maneuvers that began with flying above the plume at 15,000 feet to gather data from the remote sensing instruments. Then they cruised to a lower altitude of about 5,000 feet above the terrain and flew through the plume in a pattern called “the lawnmower” that cut north-south back and forth across the eastward-stretching plume. By the time they’d completed the first pass, the plume had been spread by winds farther east, and the smoke gases had been reacting in the atmosphere for about two and a half hours since they began. So they went back to the source and “mowed” it again, and then did a third pass east to west through the length of the plume. By the time they headed back to Boise, the plume had extended to the Wyoming border.
Flying through the plume, it was surprisingly dark, said Carsten. During each lawnmower pass, they had zero visibility where the smoke was thickest, closer toward the Shady Fire’s vertical plume (which they didn’t fly through because it was too hot and turbulent). The light that filtered in, especially as they moved toward the less dense eastern end, was yellowish-brown that snapped to clear once they exited the smoke on each perpendicular pass.
“It was smelly, too,” said Carsten. “Not as bad as I was expecting but it still smelled like smoke.”
As mission scientist, Carsten was in charge of meeting the science goals of the flight. This largely meant he was frequently switching between chatting with the ground team who had the updating satellite imagery and two different headsets on the plane: one on the science team channel where requests for adjustments were flying thick and fast, and one on the pilot channel to figure out what was possible and safe for the aircraft. Balancing all that information, Carsten directed the details of the flight to try to get the best measurements for everyone.
“Then after we turned at the end of each pass, I would call out on the science channel ‘Get ready we’re measuring smoke in 30 seconds,'” he said.
For the FIREX-AQ science team the Shady Fire is exactly what they’re looking for to study smoke dynamics in the atmosphere – what are the gases and airborne particles in plumes and how do they evolve as they age and spread downwind.
“We’re measuring everything a non-chemist knows about and then 500 more chemicals,” said Carsten. The DC-8 is loaded up with instruments and more than 30 scientists to run them during flight. Among the gases they’re measuring are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides, as well as particulate aerosols including soot and black carbon.
They’re also measuring chemicals formed in the plume, such as ozone. Ozone near Earth’s surface is a pollutant and health hazard that the Environmental Protection Agency monitors to evaluate air quality. It forms from a reaction of nitrogen oxides with volatile organic compounds (both emitted in large amounts from the fire) in the presence sunlight (that often forgotten ingredient in atmospheric chemistry.) During Thursday’s flight, the team saw ozone forming in the plume.
The science team’s excitement was palpable when they returned, and the instrument teams spent Friday getting a first crack at their data. Their deviation from the plan had been a huge success.
At the Friday morning briefing, when the team was taking a look at their options in Washington and Oregon for Saturday’s proposed flight, project scientist Jim Crawford from NASA Langley said, “Put together a flight plan for each of them.”
“And,” said Jack Dibb, project scientist from University of New Hampshire, “have a plan for Shady in our back-pocket.”
We were ready to fly. We’d heard Tuesday evening that there were two seats open on the DC-8 for the communications team on Wednesday, but as often happens in the field, plans change. For the first science flight, requests for extra seats from the instrument teams came in after the morning briefing. Safety first, science second, and communications third. But rolling with the change of plans opens up new opportunities, and ours was leaving at 2 p.m.
Out in the hangar parking lot, the NASA Langley Mobile Laboratory was getting ready to head into the Idaho wilderness. The van is big, boxy, and white. Unmarked, it looks like the kind of van movie FBI agents use for surveillance, but inside the equipment is designed to watch the sky. Specifically, the small team of five is looking at trace gases and aerosols from smoke plumes that will sink to valley floors during the night when temperatures cool.
The Langley Mobile Lab is one of two that will be deployed to take ground-level measurements during the FIREX-AQ field campaign. Ideally, the team parks the van downwind from a blazing fire whose smoke flows over the van site, said Bruce Anderson, the principle investigator for the NASA Langley Aerosol Research Group Experiment that runs the van. From their parking spot, they’ll watch the emissions evolve as the fire goes from hot and intense to smoldering and from hot daytime temperatures to cold nights and back to day.
With about two hours’ notice, Bruce graciously agreed to let us tag along. “Do you have camping gear?” he asked.
I had a sleeping bag I hadn’t expected to use during FIREX-AQ. None of us had meant to sleep anywhere but at our hotel. But this trip was too good to pass up. We reassured Bruce that we’d make do.
Landscape Shaped By Fire
Because of the van’s size, Bruce drove the long way on the major highways to Stanley, Idaho, a town in the middle of the Sawtooth National Recreational Area. We took the more direct and windier Highway 21 through the Boise and Challis National Forests.
Boise is located on a plain, with brown hills dotted by shrubs dominating the landscape. As we drove northeast, the hills gave way to forests of lodgepole pines and subalpine firs. Fires’ mark on the landscape soon became clear.
Amid the green trees of the forest, we passed entire slopes of ghostly trees, burned pale and dead but still standing with bare branches. On some slopes, grasses and scrub had regrown. On others, smaller baby trees made up the understory. On still more, the burned ghost trees were interspersed with healthy green trees at the same height – likely grown to maturity after the fire. The marks of past fires were everywhere – and then we passed the blackened char of recently contained fires.
The Canyon Fire and the Vader Fire were both near the road, and while the flames were out where and when we saw them – each fire was 75-80% contained at that point – smoke was smoldering from a few hotspots on the ground. The Canyon Fire started from a lightning strike on July 14, a common cause for wildland fires. The Vader Fire’s cause is still unknown.
We met up with the team in Stanley at the end of Highway 21 around dinner time. It’s a tiny town with a tiny population of 63 that is the launching point for seasonal visitors to the Sawtooth’s and surrounding national forests. After three hours of driving with no reception, it’s also a welcome oasis of internet and cell service within the wilderness – essential for meeting up with the Mobile Lab caravan.
In addition to Bruce, Jackson Kaspari from the University of New Hampshire and Jiajue Chai from Brown University were driving an RV to make the camping a little easier. In a separate car were Kathleen Brunke from Christopher Newport University and Carolyn Jordan from the National Institute of Aerospace with tents and camping gear. They were all looking forward to being in the field for FIREX-AQ.
“It’s a little like science camp,” said Carolyn. “You get to go out with all these people who study the same thing you do.” She raised her hands in an excited pantomime of sharing data. “What did you get? Here’s what I got!”
After dinner we headed out back the way we came a few miles down a long and wide valley with a stream running through it, and then off onto a lengthy gravel road to our campsite in the middle of the meadow.
Off in the distance a plume of smoke from the Shady Fire to the north drifted by the nearby hills. Before sunset and after testing the wind direction, the scientists got to work setting up their instruments in the van – running the power generator, opening intake valves and hatches to the outside air, attaching filters to catch particulate aerosols. It was a clear night, and in the end not much smoke made its way to the middle of the valley where we were.
“It’s a little like fishing,” Bruce said. You do your best to find a good spot based on the information and weather, but sometimes the smoke doesn’t bite.
Earlier in the week, Sunday night to Monday morning, however, the Mobile Lab at the same site caught a lot of smoke from a fire near the highway. The smoke plume sank to the valley around midnight, and the team measured the height of the smoke particles with an infrared laser looking upward and bouncing off the particles back to the laser.
In the van, each researcher had an instrument measuring different aspects of the smoke and addressing different science questions. Carolyn’s instrument measured the scattering or absorption of light by smoke particles. The scattering tells her about the size and shape of the particles, and the absorption something about their chemical composition. Kathleen was collecting particulates in the air that she will take back to the lab to measure for heavy metals – evidence that bits of soil got burned and swept up into the smoke plume – and PM 2.5, the particulate matter size that can cause respiratory problems for people who breathe it in.
Jackson’s instrument collected air into hand-blown glass chambers filled with mist that serves as seed points to collect nitrite (NO2), nitrate (NO3), and sulfate (SO4) that then run through chromatography to determine their concentrations. Jiajue’s instrument collected air samples to measure for nitrogen oxides and nitrous and nitric acid. Nitrogen compounds are essential for determining the role ozone plays in the atmosphere. Ozone reacts readily with other gases in chains of chemical reactions that can ultimately process harmful gases like greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Jiajue also uses nitrogen and oxygen isotope ratios to “fingerprint” the fuel source of the air – whether the smoke came from vehicles, soils or burned vegetation.
Bruce was a one-man show monitoring 14 instruments that doubled up some of the others’ measurements and also took measurements of major gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), whose ratio of one to the other can determine whether the smoke came from a hot intense fire (low CO) or smoldering fire (higher CO). Another instrument measures the mass of soot in the air, and others look at the optical properties of soot and various gases so that they can ultimately improve satellite interpretations of plume composition.
Together these individual measurements build a more complete understanding of how smoke particles and gases react and evolve in the atmosphere, what they say about their fuel sources, and ultimately how they affect the air quality people encounter downwind.
On a smoky night, the researchers barely sleep. While some of the instruments are fully automated, they often monitor them until past midnight, and Kathleen and Jiajue have to swap out filters and sample bottles every few hours.
The night we were out they got a reprieve, but Bruce stayed up most of the night anyway to monitor the instruments and make sure everything was running smoothly. Also, the cold made it difficult to sleep. While it was 95 degrees F in sunlight, the dry, cloudless Idaho night doesn’t hold moisture, and so temperatures dropped to below freezing, making the noisy, generator-heated van the warmest spot in camp. Those of us without proper camping gear, ended up sleeping in the car.
Despite the cold, we woke to a beautiful sunrise and to smoke plumes from the Shady Fire edging the valley. The Mobile Lab team packed up and headed back to Stanley for breakfast and to call in to the morning briefing on fire activity to find out where they were going next.
I’m Ellen Gray, a NASA science writer, and myself along with two NASA video producers, Katy Mersmann and Lauren Ward, will be shadowing the science team in Boise over the next week, sharing what it’s like to do science in the field with NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory, two NOAA Twin Otter aircraft, and NASA Langley’s Mobile Laboratory, among many other moving parts that are taking measurements of smoke from the source.