Chopper providing unprecedented pollution data near wildfires

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PANGUITCH — Firefighters in southern Utah are in their ninth day battling the Brian Head Fire and say they are making good progress. So far the fire has burned more than 43,000 acres and is 10 percent contained.

As the fire burns, it spews a huge plume of thick smoke, visible from space, wafting to the east. Each time KSL's Chopper 5 captures video from the massive blaze, it also collects unprecedented pollution data for researchers at the University of Utah.

For the past two years, the helicopter has measured particulate pollution and ozone pollution on every trip. Unlike a fixed pollution sensor positioned on the ground, the onboard sensors provide readings all around the fire. The data collected near the Brian Head Fire is likely the first of its kind.

The Brian Head Fire, which has no air monitor stations nearby, created its own weather as photographers in the helicopter shot video from a safe distance last week.

“There’s a huge amount of updraft that is created by those flames,” Chopper 5 pilot Ben Tidswell said. “It makes it uncontrollable for us to fly in those. I could feel the heat from a quarter-mile away.”

A lot of heavy fuels on the ground are giving the fire plenty to burn in timber that is 30 to 40 feet tall. “We are seeing flames over 80, 90 feet high. In some cases up to 120 feet high,” Tidswell said. “Very, very intense, putting off a lot of smoke.”

As the chopper was flying around collecting footage, it was also gathering real-time data on particulate pollution within the smoke plume near and around the fire on Wednesday and Friday. It’s valuable data for research professor Erik Crosman of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah and for the people living near the fire.

“We are just seeing tremendous high particulate concentration,” Crosman said. He said the concentrations are more than three to five times the allowable health standard: the red and purple dots signaling the worst particulate pollution. It’s data never gathered this extensively near a wildfire before.

“So that would be like a really bad inversion in the Salt Lake Valley in the winter,” Crosman said.

The pollution got more intense near the heart of the fire and within range of the smoke. "We got elevated PM 2.5 over the plume,” said Alex Jacques, a U. project technician. “But then he flew east of where the fire was primarily burning and intersected the smoke plume as it was blowing from northwest to southeast as well. That's why these values are up."

And the chopper can’t even fly in the densest smoke plumes. "It was like a moonscape or a Mars-scape,” Tidswell said “Everything turned orange. Everything was still smoky. It was incredible how bad the air was there."

The researchers are eager to explore what the new data may reveal. "Having the data after the fact to do further analysis with that is absolutely tremendous,” Jacques said.

The researchers also have sensors on TRAX trains that collect real-time pollution data. Click here to view real-time data, which could be helpful for people living downwind from the fire.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

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