GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Where there's fire, there's smoke. But
where the smoke is from and where it's going is not always clear.
So U.S. Forest Service meteorologists have developed a computer
model called BlueSky that allows firefighters - and the public - to
track smoke from wildfires and intentional burns.
"We have a clear picture - if I can say that - of what smoke is
doing in our airshed," said Sue Ferguson, team leader for the
BlueSky program developed by the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest
Research Station in Seattle. "We think this system is going to
change the way smoke is managed."
The smoke forecasts, posted on the Internet, can help people
with breathing problems avoid smoky areas. Fire officials consult
them when they plan intentional fires so they won't add to
pollution or obscure wilderness vistas, and they also use them to
make sure skies will be clear for air tankers to drop fire
retardant.
BlueSky was first used last fall to assess smoke problems from a
wilderness fire in Square Lakes, Wash. Combined with an
Environmental Protection Agency program called RAINS (Rapid Access
Information System), BlueSky was expanded this summer to forecast
smoke, days in advance, from other fires in Washington, Oregon,
Idaho and western Montana. Eventually, BlueSky/RAINS will be used
around the country.
To get the forecasts, models of weather and fire behavior are
combined in a cluster of high-speed computers. Then daily weather
and fire information is added, and BlueSky generates a
computer-animated map, with fire locations, wind directions and
spreading blobs of smoke, color-coded for intensity.
The cost of the program over the past year has been close to $1
million, said Ferguson. The National Fire Plan contributed
$344,000. EPA in-kind contributions for RAINS were about $250,000.
The rest came from a consortium of agencies that support University
of Washington meteorological modeling.
"What we had in the past was a good, smart meteorologist
looking at the stability of the atmosphere and the wind
direction," said Ferguson. "We are finding a lot of nuisance
smoke isn't very well-captured by the older models people are
using. The new technology is integrating all the pieces."
Ferguson said BlueSky has an advantage over satellite photos for
tracking smoke, because it shows what is happening close to the
ground, which may be obscured by clouds or smoke higher in the
atmosphere.
The management team on the Square Lakes fire in Washington used
BlueSky to keep the Bavarian-style tourist destination of
Leavenworth, Wash., informed on smoke potential for the important
Labor Day weekend, said Roland Emetaz, spokesman for the team.
"We had some basis for what we were telling the media and
businesses in the community," said Emetaz. "If we hadn't had
that, we would have just been fumbling."
Mike Ziolko, meteorology manager for the Oregon Department of
Forestry, is still assessing BlueSky's effectiveness.
"It's cool, but is it right?" said Ziolko. "We think we're
doing a pretty good job with our forecasting. The number of smoke
intrusions we've gotten into areas we're trying to protect has
really decreased in the past five or 10 years."
BlueSky/RAINS offers an unprecedented level of coordination
between agencies that regulate smoke, said Karen Wood, who oversees
agricultural burning for the Washington state Department of
Ecology.
"Previously, when allowing prescribed burning or agricultural
burning on any given day, we had no way of knowing easily who else
was burning," said Wood. "We were looking at our own world.
"This combines all the different agencies' information into one
product. Once everything is running - it's still being developed -
it will give us a much better look at how we evaluate whether we
want to allow additional smoke. Because smoke is smoke is smoke -
whether it's coming from an agricultural field, a wildfire or a
prescribed silvicultural burn."
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On the Net:
BlueSky/RAINS computer animation:
http://www.blueskyrains.org/nw/realtime/

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)