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Wildfire Emissions to Get Probe by Land, Air, Satellite (1)

July 22, 2019, 10:33 PMUpdated: July 22, 2019, 11:31 PM

Scientists from NOAA, NASA, and several universities are spending the summer chasing wildfires and crop fires by air, land, and satellite to better understand the gases and tiny particles found wafting in smoke.

FIREX-AQ, which stands for Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments and Air Quality, will use planes, satellites, and drones, as well as land and mobile stations, to document fire conditions, weather and smoke migration. The initiative began July 22.

The logo for the new joint initiative.
Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

“We want to improve our understanding of what is coming out of fires, how much is coming out of fires, and where it is going,” said Joshua Schwarz, a FIREX-AQ mission lead and a research physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

Four federal agencies, 22 colleges, and private industry are participating in hopes of yielding data that will lead to a better understanding of the chemistry and composition of smoke. Four weeks will be spent based in Boise, Idaho, and three weeks in Salina, Kan., allowing crews to follow the fires.

The threat of wildfires in the West is expected to intensify with climate change, and the project will help improve weather and air quality models to better inform firefighters, public health officials, and others on the ground, officials at the agencies said.

“Ultimately, the reason we want to understand complex smoke-atmosphere interactions is to provide better forecasts and longer lead times for communities downwind of fires,” NASA Program Manager Barry Lefer said in a news release.

Hard to Model

Fire emissions are harder to model and understand than those from power sources or traffic, because heat, fuels, weather, and other factors must be considered, said Jim Crawford, a scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Chemicals emanating from structures burned in the fire may also be studied.

“Fire is one of the most complex [emissions] because fires are unique,” Crawford said. “The diversity of what could be introduced into the atmosphere is quite large. There’s a lot of things we need to understand.”

The teams can measure for as many as 100 chemicals, including volatile organic compounds, aboard flying laboratories on two DHC-6 Twin Otters, a DC-8, and an ER-2, which reaches the stratosphere.

The California Air Resources Board will have mobile labs running to assist data collection when FIREX-AQ is operating in the state, Crawford said.

Scientists will also study how the chemical composition of smoke changes, or ages, as fires go from flames to smoldering.

“It could be quite important for air toxics,” Schwarz said.

The crews will mostly likely travel to smaller fires in the West and prescribed crop fires in the Southeast, which are less likely to show up on satellite images.

“We don’t need them to be large for them to be scientifically useful,” Crawford said.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Chuck McCutcheon at; Rob Tricchinelli at