New strategies to protect people from smoke during wildfires

American Geophysical Union

By Gabriel Filippelli

The current strategy to protect human lives and property during wildfires is to focus on the fire itself but this is only part of the impact on human health. Inhaling fine particulates in the smoke generated by wildfires causes significant and sometimes severe health impacts, especially for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions. We are currently hampered in our ability to monitor this public health threat because we have so few air quality monitors—satellite sensors typically lack the spatial resolution to provide community-level protections.

Gupta et al. [2018] capitalize on the revolution in the development of low cost particulate monitors to validate on-the-ground measurements with satellite proxies for fine particulates during the 2017 wine country fire in Northern California. They reveal the ability of the ground-level sensor array to identify particulate matter hotspots, and to track the movement of these hotspots as the fire evolved. They also revealed some of the limitations in both ground level monitors, namely relatively low data quality and instrumental variations, and satellite proxy measurements, namely the proxy calibration to actual particulate matter concentration at ground level. Even with these limitations, the sheer density of individual measurements can balance out instrumental bias and provide a critical new tool to protect human health during wildfire or other smoke events in areas without current monitoring capabilities.

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