Smoke Management

Managing smoke is part of wildland fire management. Protecting human life is the foremost priority in all aspects of wildland fire management, including smoke, while protecting natural resources and personal property are secondary priorities.  

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Smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire as viewed from the International Space Station. NASA
The Clean Air Act establishes public health and welfare and environmental quality as primary and secondary standards for controlling air pollution. The Act also requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to control pollution and protect public health, safety, and welfare and establishes state-level responsibilities for preventing and controlling air pollution. Many of the specific requirements for smoke management are therefore found in state implementation plans (SIP) and smoke management programs (SMP). In addition to specific SIPs and SMPs, the EPA’s Interim Air Quality Policy on Wildland and Prescribed Fire integrates two public policy goals - to allow fire to function, as nearly as possible, in its natural role in maintaining healthy wildland ecosystems, and to protect public health and welfare by mitigating the impacts of air pollutant emissions on air quality and visibility. The policy provides guidance on mitigating air pollution impacts caused by fires in the wildlands and the wildland/urban interface. 

 

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Visibility impacted in Denali National Park as a result of wildfire smoke.

 

Emissions 

Wildland fires produce particulates and trace gases that influence the chemical composition of the atmosphere and affect the health and safety of firefighters and the public. These emissions influence the quality of the air we breathe as well as issues such as climate change. The major components of smoke are water vapor and carbon dioxide. However, smoke also contains the pollutants carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter. Because of its very small size, similar to pollen, fine particulate matter can easily penetrate deep into lung tissue, causing severe respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Particulate matter can also significantly reduce visibility on highways by scattering and absorbing light, resulting in unsafe driving conditions, making it the pollutant of primary concern for smoke management. In order to comply with the law, fire managers must understand how particulate matter affects public health, reduces visibility on highways and near airports, and impacts scenic vistas within Class I areas such as wilderness areas, national parks, and wildlife refuges.  

 

Smoke and Prescribed Fires 

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Smoke in the San Bernadino National Forest as viewed from the International Space Station. NASA

During a wildfire, smoke may be difficult to manage based on conditions, however, during a prescribed or planned fire, managers can plan for weather conditions, including wind speed and wind direction, that allow for good dispersal, lessening the impact of smoke on a particular area. Managers also call off prescribed fires if conditions are not exactly right and will cause too much of an impact from smoke. Education and warnings in advance of a fire can help protect those with breathing difficulties so they can stay indoors or leave the area. Managers do everything they can to mitigate the risk from smoke, even closing roads if smoke will potentially cause accidents. 

 

For more information about smoke management visit the NWCG Smoke Committee website.