July 18, 2014 11:49 pm

Wildfire smoke forecasting system helps head-off health impacts

Forecast technology operated out of the University of British Columbia is allowing experts across Canada to track where wildfire smoke is heading and how much of a health impact the haze will be up to 48 hours into the future.

While no one benefits from inhaling smoke from a wildfire it’s the young, elderly, pregnant women and those living with chronic heart and lung disease who can suffer life-threatening complications.

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“In fire smoke we have particulate matter, we have carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, all of which, as they enter the lungs can cause irritation and systemic inflammation,” Dr. Catherine Elliott, BCCDC Physician/Epidemiologist says.

These complications can result in asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and in some cases, heart attacks and it’s the reason why it’s important to know which communities the smoke is going to blanket and when.

That’s where the BlueSky Wildfire Smoke Forecasting system comes into play. UBC played a key role in developing the system five year ago. Today, the researchers continue to improve the system, which operates from giant servers on the UBC campus. The system produces 48 hour forecasts by compiling information from various sources like forest fire data.

The system’s models predict what will happen to the smoke, how much smoke will be generated by fires, and how it will be carried by the provided meteorology throughout the region, says Roland Schigas, UBC Weather Forecast Research.

The satellite imagery tells researchers the location and intensity of the hotspots and where the fires are located, along with feeding the BlueSky weather reports and regular updates from firefighting agencies on the ground.

“BlueSky is critical,” Elliott says. “[It] can be used for healthy system planning such as how many ER doctors you need in the emergency department. It can also be used for our public health messaging.”

~ with files from Linda Aylesworth

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