USA: Smoke adaptation is fire adaptation

Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

By Allison Jolley, Communication manager for the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

“It’s not as simple as, ‘How do you want your smoke?’ We could conduct thousands of acres of prescribed fire in our county and still be breathing smoke from another county, or even another state, next summer.”

“Smoke isn’t just part of our job. It’s a health hazard, including a psychological one, and as FAC practitioners, we have to be prepared to step up as leaders in our communities, even as we ourselves, and our families, are being debilitated by smoke.”

“Smoke adaptation must become part of fire adaptation.”

These are the sorts of things I’ve been hearing lately about smoke. It seems that the conversation is shifting from “How do we help residents accept smoke?” to “How do we help residents better adapt to it.”

In addition to the faultiness of increasing public acceptance of smoke, this new emphasis on smoke adaptation is a good thing. Between the current (and likely continued) increase in wildfires and the need for more prescribed fire as a means to better temper the wild ones, there is certainly smoke in our future, so we need to be actively working on ways to adapt to it. Below are some excellent resources and ideas to help you, and your community, mitigate the health and economic consequences of smoke.

Get businesses at the table

Businesses have a lot to lose when it’s smoky, but mitigation is possible. In Ashland, Oregon, a prime example of the relationship between smoke and the economy is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). OSF is a nonprofit, and also one of the biggest businesses in town, and its largest venue is outdoors and vulnerable to poor air quality issues. Smoke has been impacting OSF’s outdoor performances since 2013; in 2018, OSF lost $2 million due to shows canceled because of smoke (and associated expenses).

Not only is sitting in an outdoor theater during heavy smoke unappealing to audiences, it can also be unsafe for performers, stage crew and ushers to work during smoky conditions. Rather than just hoping it gets better, OSF, Ashland Fire & Rescue, and other local business partners are pro-actively working to adapt to future smoke. Their actions range from investing in filters for indoor theaters to relocating performances entirely.

If you’re not already working with your Chamber of Commerce and local businesses to prepare for smoke, start building those relationships today!

Make sure your community knows how to properly wear protective masks.

A mask only protects you if it’s properly fitted. Learn how to fit and wear an N95 mask courtesy of our partners in Ashland, and consider sharing this video with your community!

For more smoke preparedness materials, visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Smoke Ready Toolbox.

Download the Smoke Sense app

Smoke Sense logo
Credit: Environmental Protection Agency

Share these resources with public health officials and practitioners

The Smoke Sense app uses citizen science to generate public information about wildfire smoke. You can use it to both report and access information on air quality, health patterns and wildfire locations.

Wildfire Smoke Guide cover page
Click on the image above to access the EPA’s “Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials” (PDF, 2.03MB)

If you know a public health official, make sure they check out the EPA’s Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials (PDF, 2.03MB). It has tools and guidelines for communicating about wildfire smoke risks and recommendations. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the USDA Forest Service, the California Air Resources Board, the California Department of Public Health and the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment all contributed to this guide.

For detailed training related to wildfire smoke, health practitioners should check out the EPA’s online course, Particle Pollution and Your Patients’ Health (continuing credits available).

Read Alan Vette’s blog, Wildfire Smoke Resilience Resources from the EPA, for more information.

Explore these monitoring and modeling resources

Although smoke can come from a number of landscapes, the USDA National Forest has several helpful resources that your community may be able to benefit from. In Dr. Leland Tarnay’s blog, How Healthier Forests Can Mean Less Smoke: The Science, Tools and Strategies Related to Smoke Management in Fire-Adapted Forests, he explains that:

“[The] U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station’s AirFire Team has consolidated the tools to support this [smoke] monitoring, modeling and messaging framework in one place, online. This portal integrates custom tools needed to create the best possible predictions about where and how unhealthy the smoke will be, based on currently deployed monitoring and smoke dispersion modeling. Research has shown that media messaging that doesn’t incorporate such tools can often be wrong, but if actual data from models and monitoring are used to predict and warn people about when and where smoke impacts will occur, measurable public health benefits can be achieved.

The Forest Service has its own in-house smoke experts, known as air resource advisors (ARAs). They are part of the Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program. As Dr. Tarnay goes on to explain:

“ARAs are trained to use and interpret the AirFire tools for predicting when, where and how intense smoke is likely to manifest, but these tools can also be used by public officials, fire management staff, and others with the responsibility of informing the public about the timing and location of potential smoke episodes, both for prescribed fire and for wildfire. AirFire tools inform the daily one-page summaries for large fires and give people timely information for minimizing their smoke exposure.

The AirFire monitoring site aggregates data from all of the agencies monitoring the smoke from fires, nationwide, as part of the Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program. The tools help translate smoke data into easily understandable metrics for overall air quality (e.g., the Daily AQI), and shorter-term, hourly metrics (e.g., Hourly Nowcast) that are useful for avoiding the worst of the day’s smoke.

Used in concert with the operational BlueSky modeling, the BlueSky Playground (USFS login required) and myriad portable smoke monitors available from local and state air pollution agencies, these tools are intended to help fire and air quality managers provide the best available information to the public about when and where the smoke will be, and how to avoid it.”

How does prescribed fire smoke compare?

Research shows that while prescribed fires emit smoke, daily emissions can be exponentially greater during a major wildfire. Dr. Tarnay’s blog covers this issue in more detail as well.

This graph, based on data from Yosemite National Park in California, illustrates just how different prescribed smoke and wildfire smoke can be. Click on it to learn more about wildfire smoke research. Credit: Jonathan Long, adapted from Long et al. (2017)

As Dr. Tarnay stated, “[Prescribed fire is] a good trade-off, and a more air-quality-friendly way to “re-enter” a landscape without necessarily burning it entirely, if the treatments are appropriately sized, and strategically placed and timed.”

A map of the Rim Fire wildfire smoke plume
This map shows the smoke footprint of the Rim Fire during a single day when high-density smoke reached more than 2 million people in California and Nevada. Note that the smoke traveled to three other additional states as well that day. Maps like these have me thinking that we can’t use prescribed fire near one community as a guarantee that smoke won’t arrive later on, especially because the smoke could very well be some from somewhere else. Credit: Long et al., 2017

As promising as data like these are, most of us have breathed another county’s, or even another state’s, smoke at some time. So even though a particular stand of trees should emit less smoke during a mild controlled burn than during a high-intensity wildfire, that’s not a guarantee that those trees are your community’s only source of potential smoke. The “How do you want your smoke?” approach to promoting prescribed fire may give communities the impression that practitioners are promising to control future smoke that could very well come from outside of their jurisdiction, and in reality be out of their control.

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