Tracking wildfire smoke, U of U researchers discover way to predict impact on humans

Aug 4, 2021, 6:38 PM

A NASA satellite image of the 2013 Yosemite Rim Fire, one of California's largest fires. The image ...

A NASA satellite image of the 2013 Yosemite Rim Fire, one of California's largest fires. The image shows smoke from the fire, located at the cluster of red dots, spreading to Nevada, Idaho and Montana. Credit: NASA

SALT LAKE CITY — The skies over the Salt Lake Valley are grey and filled with wildfire smoke coming from the west coast. But, how much of that are we actually breathing?  Researchers at the University of Utah have created a way to predict where wildfire smoke will go, and where it may cause health problems for more people.

RELATED: Utah’s smoky air is burning our lungs

University of Utah Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Heather Holmes said the potential health risks from wildfire smoke correlate to how high the smoke has traveled.  She says her partner, Dr. S. Marcela Loría-Salazar with the University of Oklahoma, noticed something odd when looking at the pollution data from the Yosemite Rim Fire in 2013.

“She said, ‘there’s smoke going over Fresno, but if you look at the EPA monitor, it doesn’t look like the air pollution is going up as high as you would expect,’” Holmes said.

RELATED: Cough, cough: Wildfire season may bring worsening air quality

After taking a closer look they discovered vertical winds had pushed the smoke into the troposphere, away from the earth’s surface.  So, the pollution levels stayed relatively low even though the air looked incredibly dirty.

“It wasn’t low enough to be able to mix down into the surface,” said Holmes.

Holmes said people have been able to use weather patterns to predict where the winds will carry the wildfire pollution, but vertical winds have been much harder to predict.  However, she and her fellow researchers have developed a system that takes current weather models and combines them with NASA satellite imagery, and they can measure how high the wildfire smoke plumes are. 

She said if the smoke stays out of the atmospheric boundary layer it won’t be a major health risk to people below.

“In that layer, the air is mixing all the time.  So, if the smoke is above that layer, then it won’t mix down into that boundary layer and it won’t end up at the surface,” she said.

This system also allows researchers to predict where the worst particles from the smoke are going to land.

“If it’s in the boundary layer, it’s going to mix down into the surface where it will impact humans,” Holmes said.

Wildfire smoke can be especially hazardous to vulnerable populations

Smoke from wildfires contains thousands of tiny particles which are easily absorbed into the lungs. These include volatile organic compounds, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons, according to U.S. Air Quality Index.

These compounds can lead to eye irritation and exacerbate existing conditions, such as asthma or cardiovascular disease. Most healthy adults can quickly recover from exposure to wildfire smoke, but people in those more vulnerable populations should avoid breathing it if possible. 

A smoke forecast? 

Using this new system, Holmes said they hope to create a new smoke forecast, which could warn people of potentially unhealthy levels of pollution a few days before they actually happen.  They believe this can help cities know when they should issue health advisories and close schools to keep people safe.

Holmes’ and Loría-Salazar’s study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.


We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.


food is sorted, kids more open to food insecurity during summer months...

Britt Johnson

Summertime leaves kids vulnerable to food insecurity

The president of the Utah Food Bank said kids who rely on school breakfast and lunch will face food insecurity this summer.

1 day ago


Michelle Lee

The impact of spring colors on mental health

Let’s Get Moving Host Maria Shilaos spoke with Dr. Sally Augustin to learn how we can use spring colors to improve our mental health.

2 days ago

The Delta Center and the skyline in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. Jazz owner Ryan Smith...

Michael Camit

SLC’s Main Street redesign is open to suggestions from disabled Utahns

With proposals for the revitalization of downtown Salt Lake City, ADA experts want to hear from disabled Utahns.

4 days ago

Suicide Rock in Parley's Canyon in 2023, before the myrtle spurge was sprayed with treatment....

Lindsay Aerts, KSL TV

Roundup sprayed via drone in Millcreek, Parley’s canyons to kill invasive weed. DWR says it’s needed

In an attempt to kill weeds, the Department of Wildlife Resources sprayed pesticides in the foothills of Millcreek and Parley’s canyons.

4 days ago

Therapist talks about mental health for athletes in the olympics...

Allessandra Harris

Sports psychologist explains an Olympic athlete’s feelings of grief

It is common for Olympic athletes to experience feelings of grief when competing or after the events have ended.

5 days ago

Salt Lake Deputy Police Chief Josh Scharman conducts the grand opening of the Community Connections...

Eric Cabrera

Social workers with Salt Lake Police Department are responding to more callers than ever

The Community Connection Center social workers who work with the Salt Lake Police Department are getting an increase in mental health-related calls, as a result they have grown their team to able to respond to more.

6 days ago

Sponsored Articles

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.


Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

Tracking wildfire smoke, U of U researchers discover way to predict impact on humans