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Study: Wildfires Pollute More Than Previous Estimates

Drought and warmer temperatures have been linked to an increase in the number and size of wildfires across western states. (Getty Images)
Drought and warmer temperatures have been linked to an increase in the number and size of wildfires across western states. (Getty Images)
June 19, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY – The amount of air pollution released by forest fires is three times larger than previous EPA estimates, and particulates can have a long-lasting impact on climate - according to two new studies from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Greg Huey, a professor at Georgia Tech, says smoke samples they studied contained a list of chemicals you'd expect from an oil refinery - methanol, benzene, other noxious emissions - which pose significant risks to public health.

"As it gets drier, we might expect to have more forest fires and larger problems with air quality due to them," he says. "So our study points out that we're really going to have to think about forest management and fire policies as we move ahead."

A separate Georgia Tech study found that particulates from forest fires are reaching the upper atmosphere and staying there, which could speed up global warming. Scientists analyzed air samples collected by NASA aircraft some seven miles above locations across the U.S.

Drought and warmer temperatures have been linked to the increase in the number and size of wildfires across western states.

Huey notes the microscopic specks released by burning forests are especially dangerous for the lungs and heart. He says one way to limit the amount of particulates could be to beat wildfires at their own game.

"There's a pretty obvious candidate to look at, and that's to do prescribed burning because prescribed burning releases fewer pollutants per amount of fuel burned than the wildfires do," he explains.

Previous EPA estimates for forest-fire pollution levels were based on samples taken on the ground during controlled burns ignited by forestry professionals. Huey and his team captured smoke samples by flying directly into three separate active wildfire plumes.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - UT