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Individual Highlight

Effects of a Megafire on Air Quality

Photo of Smoke hangs over a large wildfire burning in the northeast corner of Alberta, Canada, in this natural color image taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite on June 8, 2011. Red outlines actively burning are NASA, MODIS Rapid Response Team. NASA, MODIS Rapid Response Team.Smoke hangs over a large wildfire burning in the northeast corner of Alberta, Canada, in this natural color image taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite on June 8, 2011. Red outlines actively burning are NASA, MODIS Rapid Response Team. NASA, MODIS Rapid Response Team.Snapshot : Few studies have addressed the effects of forest fires on atmospheric levels of reactive nitrogen pollutants, which function as precursors to ozone and formation of fine air particles (particulate matter). The 1.7 million-acre megafire that occurred in summer 2011 in northern Alberta, Canada, provided an opportunity to learn about the regional impacts of fire on air quality. Atmospheric levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) were a strong indicator of fire emissions, increasing to levels more than 10 times the U.S. air quality standard during the fire. Atmospheric concentrations of a suite of nitrogen pollutants increased greatly during the fire and were highly correlated with PM2.5 concentrations.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Fenn, Mark E. 
Research Location : The Athabasca Oil Sands Regin, near Ft. McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada?
Research Station : Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW)
Year : 2016
Highlight ID : 1079

Summary

The effects of fires, both prescribed and wildfires, on air quality is increasingly a societal concern for several reasons: (1) climate change and increasing incidence of “megafires”; (2) increased recreational and residential use of wildlands, and thus, human exposure to air pollution from fires and other sources; (3) the need to expand areas treated with prescribed fire as a result of long-term fire suppression; and (4) increasing background levels of ozone in the western United States and fire emissions’ contributions to ozone formation. The 2011 Richardson Fire in northern Alberta was the second-largest wildfire in Canadian province’s history. An extensive air monitoring network was already in place to monitor air quality from oil sands mines and processing facilities. Air quality was measured before, during and after the fire, including pollutants that typically are not measured in fire emissions studies. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations in the atmosphere increased dramatically during the fire as expected. In addition, concentrations of a suite of inorganic nitrogen pollutants, such as ammonia (NH3), ammonium (NH4+), nitric acid vapor (HNO3), nitrate (NO3-) and total inorganic reactive nitrogen, increased dramatically. Ozone concentrations increased during the fire at one monitoring site near the fire perimeter, but was not significantly changed throughout the larger air quality monitoring network. This study demonstrates how nitrogen compounds in smoke, simultaneously functioning as plant nutrients, air pollutants and ozone precursors, are transported in the atmosphere and deposited to downwind forests and urban sites.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

 
  • Allan Legge, Biophere Solutions (Canada)
  • Witold Fraczek, Environmental Systems Research Institute
  • Yu-Mei Hsu and Kevin Percy, Wood Buffalo Environmental Association

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