"It's a threat to the air we breathe," Researchers study wildfires impact on air quality

Posted at 6:04 PM, Aug 11, 2018

When you think of pollution, you might think of cars or trucks, but the wildfires burning across the nation affect our health and ecosystem too. A majority of Idaho is under Stage I fire restrictions, which means the fires are on everyone's mind.

"The smoke from wildfires is a threat to the air that we breathe," said Rainer Volkamer, a principal investigator. "There's hardly a month in the United States where there's no fire burning."

Thanks to the National Science Foundation's "We Can" study, based in Boise, we have more information on how much air pollution wildfires cause. Volkamer says there's been lots of information to gather.

"One thing we found was the amount of carbon monoxide emitted was in the thousands of tons per hour," said Volkamer.

To put that into perspective, that's equal to the amount of pollution from the entire state of California. Scientists say it's not just smoke from our fires that are affecting the air quality, fires over in California are affecting our air quality. Firefighters from all over the world have come to the United States to help fight the fires.

"The amount of smoke emitted not only created locally by fires, but they also get transported here across state boundaries for example by California," said Volkamer

Scientists use planes with straw-like instruments to suck in the smoke. Then scientists and graduate students test what chemicals are inside the smoke.

"We try to position the aircraft below the wildfire smoke to measure," said Volkamer

Graduate students like Natalie Kille rode along with the investigators as they positioned the planes directly under the clouds of gas to collect their data. Kille says the heat and turbulence are well worth it to gain a better insight at the health risks associated with the flames burning across the country.

"We have really bumpy rides, and it can get really warm in the plane because we're close to the surface where the air is warm," Kille said. "There are particles that when you breathe them in they impact our lungs and so we can get pulmonary diseases and other chemicals."

As fire season burns longer into the year, the new data can help Idahoans prepare to face the smoke.

"That helps us make better tools available to predict the impact of smoke both on public air quality public health concerns as well as the ecosystem," said Volkamer.