NASA Smoke Signals for Air Quality

By: Lia Poteet, Earth Science Division - Applied Sciences

Air Quality Research Center's, Sean Raffuse has been working on a team at NASA developing smoke and fire models. A recently published article quoted below shares his work over the past few years.  

The U.S. Forest Service now has a powerful way to view near-real time fire detection from NASA satellite data that they can include in their hourly air quality forecasts. A NASA-supported project created a new, experimental tool that incorporates near real-time fire detection data from satellites into hourly estimates of emissions to better track fire smoke as it billows into surrounding communities.

Susan O’Neill and her team developed the data tool as part of NASA’s 2017 California Wildfires Tiger Team, an initiative within the Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST) of NASA's Earth Applied Sciences Program. O’Neill is the lead investigator and said that typically, computer models use fire size, type of vegetation burned, and current weather conditions to estimate how, when, and where the risk of smoke was greatest. 


Sean Raffuse, a researcher at University of California-Davis’s Air Quality Research Center, is on O'Neill's team. Raffuse develops fire and smoke models with research and satellite data and built the website to more easily visualize this data for human eyes. The website tracks fires’ movement every five minutes and the amount of emissions produced. Raffuse saw his model in action one sunny November day in Davis, California, as the 2018 Camp Fire exploded nearby. 

“We had a meeting in another building, so we enjoyed the weather on the short walk outside,” Raffuse said. “When we left the building an hour later to go back, the sky had completely changed – the air was thick with smoke. I had just built a simple viewer to visualize the information we had, so I rushed back to my office to see the data coming in. As I scrolled through the time series, I could hardly believe it – a nearby fire had exploded overnight. Now the smoke was reaching us, and it had completely taken over the area in the time it took us to have a meeting.” 

Raffuse saw the Camp Fire, in near real-time, rapidly expand to take over the city of Paradise, California, in 2018. “We were quite a ways downwind, but still the smoke so quickly overcame the area. It interesting and a little scary to see how fast the smoke had moved,” said Raffuse. 

Motivated by their personal experiences watching the Camp Fire unfold, O'Neill's team took a deeper dive into the data and forecast the smoke as the fire progressed. “It was an important test to see some success using this for operational forecasts, and showed us places we could improve,” O’Neill said. 


“This project is promising, and we’re looking into even more ways to assess smoke output from a fire,” Raffuse said. The new estimates are already being applied in several ongoing studies on public health, some of which are also funded by HAQAST. The team is continuing to make their smoke predictions more robust and easier to use, so they can be available as a standard tool in response agencies’ resources – all to help protect public health and keep first responders informed of these environmental risks.

Read the full article on NASA's website here. This article was written by Lia PoteetEarth Science Division - Applied Sciences.

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