Just in time for the wildfire smoke drifting from the west coast across the country, the EPA has released a new iteration of a tool to help people on the ground make use of high tech and data that tracks the problem.
In mid-July, EPA top administrator Michael S. Regan made an announcement stating: “The updated map provides additional tools to help communities near the front lines better understand their risks from wildfire smoke and the actions they can take to protect their health during wildfire events.”
The Forest Service, in conjunction with the EPA, released a previous version in 2020. The goal was to make available a one-stop location for information on air quality, fire locale, and smoke plumes. In the first ninety days of usage, the Fire and Smoke Map got over 7.4 million hits.
The methodology uses stats from monitors connected to AirNow, which furnishes regularly scheduled reports from forest service temperature equipment and air agencies in play near burning fires. Another critical contributor is inexpensive crowdsourcing monitors (over 10,000) that can pick up the quantities of particulate pollution, the most harmful component of smoke pollution. The goal is to give people a hyperlocal look at what is happening in their area.
This year, with the combined efforts of both agencies, numerous upgrades have been made. I checked out both the Fire and Smoke Map and the AirNow site (which is available as an app in the Apple store and via Google Play).
I put my zip code into the Fire and Smoke Map. Three clickable boxes appeared, offering ways to search. I was able to examine both significant fire incidents and those detected by satellite. I drilled down on a wildfire named Peak Fire. It reported a 950-acre area impacted with only 5 percent of the flames contained (based on details filed 5 hours previously). An online search showed residents had been called to evacuate the area.
On the AirNow website, I perused all the verticals and learned that the local partner in the project for my state was the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. I looked at what was a basic primer on Air Quality Index (AQI) and Health. The breakdown was extremely user-friendly. It explained how AQI measures air quality on a scale of 0 to 500. A color-coded key broke down 6 categories. A score of 50 or below represents a “satisfactory” air quality, with air pollution not creating a risk. The maroon bar (301 plus) warns of “emergency conditions” with a “hazardous level of concern.”
My New York borough of the Bronx has been tagged “Asthma Alley,” so I examined the breakdown on “Trends for pollutants that affect people with lung disease.” In 2018, the Bronx had 9 days of “Orange,” which is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” The states of Oregon, Arizona, California were in much worse condition. In 2018, San Bernardino, California, had 154 unhealthy days, including one-third in the red zone, topped off by a sliver of maroon.
A page is devoted to any questions that users may have. The explanation of the PM2.5 trend label, categorized as “stable, increasing, decreasing, or variable,” is particularly relevant to those with asthma. Children are at extreme risk from wildfire smoke.
Since researching this article, I have downloaded the EPA app. I check it daily after I see what the weather is. It is another way to monitor local air safety and connect with the reality of our unmitigated climate crisis.
Images Courtesy of AirNow