State, federal officials share air quality data in tracking wildfires

State, federal officials share air quality data in tracking wildfires

Barriers between agencies tumble as the battle against smoke and flames transfixes Western states

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

Where there's fire, there's smoke. And where there's smoke, there's the likelihood of serious health problems.

The wildfires that swept through the western states this summer were the most destructive in decades. But at least for this go-round, state environmental officials were ready with an arsenal of air quality monitoring tools.

Montana meteorologist John Coefield monitored a fire south of Helena mea-suring about 100 miles in diameter.

Montana's Environmental Quality Department (DEQ) hooked continuous air quality monitors to the Integrated Control and Instrumentation System (ICIS) run by WTC Inc. of Bozeman, Mont. ICIS started in 1979 as an MS-DOS program and has since been upgraded to run under Microsoft Windows 98 and Windows 2000.

ICIS runs on WTC's proprietary data loggers, which are small data monitoring, collection and analysis units equipped with circuit boards, WTC's sales and marketing director James Shinkle said.

The Montana DEQ analyzes the particulates logged by ICIS with a tapered element oscillating microbalance or TEOM Series 1400a ambient particulate monitor from Rupprecht and Patashnick Co. Inc. of Albany, N.Y. TEOM monitors analyze air particles, which the monitors filter through an oscillating glass column, said John Coefield, meteorologist with the Montana DEQ.

The TEOMs weigh the filter as the air passes through. Analysts can then determine the concentration of particulates and pollutants.

DEQ analysts use TEOMs to measure particulate matter in the air that's less than or equal to 10 micrometers in diameter. At 10 micrometers, dust can be a health risk and impair visibility, DEQ officials said, especially when the particulates occur in concentrations of 60 or more micrograms per cubic meter of air per day.

Analysts use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to manipulate the data, Coefield said. They also use the Global Positioning System to verify the coordinates of the fire data and map it using ArcInfo and ArcView from Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands, Calif.

'We had a similar situation in 1988,' Coefield said. 'We were trying to respond to the same amount of smoke, but back then we had to do everything by faxes and phone calls. The National Weather Service had to use a Teletype circuit to get their weather information to us.'

The biggest fire Coefield monitored this summer was about 100 miles in diameter, just south of Helena, Mont.

'You can't find old-timers in the Forest Service who've seen it worse than this,' he said. The fires that destroyed about 70 houses were in the Bitterroot Valley near Missoula, he said.

The wildfire crisis brought out a spirit of cooperation between state and federal agencies, said Diane Riley, an air quality analyst with the Idaho DEQ.

'We shared fire information with the National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,' Riley said. 'We've really broken down the state-federal barrier.'

Dave Levinson, a Bureau of Land Management meteorologist, agreed. 'A big part of my job is to make sure feds and state folks interact,' he said.

Levinson is program coordinator for the Montana-Idaho State Airshed Group, a consortium of regulatory and health agencies that have banded together to minimize smoke damage.

Members of the group include representatives of Montana and Idaho DEQs, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. As a smoke management meteorologist, Levinson has spent the summer making smoke dispersion forecasts. He lets people know if the smoke is going to stagnate or be blown away by winds.

'We're playing a chess game with the smoke,' Levinson said. 'The fires were so big and were putting out so much smoke, it was difficult to track every plume. We had to scale back some of our analysis.'

Levinson uses TEOM communications software to access the Montana DEQ TEOM data over a 33.6-Kbps modem on a 333-MHz IBM PC that the Montana DEQ gave him.

Web forecasts

At least once a day'sometimes twice'Levinson posts his forecasts on the Forest Service's Web site, at He also uses NWS' Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS), which runs on a Hewlett-Packard 9000 Series server at NWS' field office in Missoula. Levinson described the NWS server as 'within crawling distance' of his office.

To create charts and analyze the data, Levinson uses SigmaPlot Version 4.0 for Windows 3.1 from SPSS Inc. of Chicago. 'It's like Excel but it has tools and capabilities that are designed specifically for scientific graphing,' he said. Levinson connects to the Forest Service's LAN, which runs Lotus Notes.

The Montana fires came close to the University of Montana's main campus, Levinson said. Undaunted, the university granted students who helped fight the fires a three-week reprieve from school, with no credit lost.

'This was just a huge fire,' Levinson said. 'I was getting calls from Tennessee and Iowa, complaining about the smoke from this fire.'

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