As wildfire season heats up, CSU experts push for national smoke warning system


We have warnings for high ozone levels, for floods and tornados. But there is one major natural disaster-related risk that is easily trackable but has been silent so far: smoke.

Wildfire smoke is not only a view-blocker. It is also a health hazard, especially for children and older adults, and for those of any age with asthma or other lung or heart conditions.

That’s why A. R. Ravishankara, professor of chemistry in the College of Natural Sciences, and of atmospheric science in the College of Engineering, along with several CSU colleagues, have put together a series of workshops on the topic. Their goal is ambitious: the enactment of a national smoke warning system.

Working with Ravishankara on this initiative: Sonia Kreidenweis of atmospheric science, Marilee Long of journalism and mass communication, Jennifer Peel of epidemiology, John Volckens of mechanical engineering and environmental health sciences, Jeff Pierce of atmospheric science and Sheryl Magzamen of epidemiology. Ravishankara, Kreidenweis, Long, Peel and Volckens make up the Partnership for Air Quality, Climate, and Health (PACH) group, first funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research as a Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships (CIP) program.

Partnering with stakeholders

This month, as wildfire risks climb in the great outdoors, the group met indoors at the CSU Denver Center with representatives from various government agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. They also met with private companies specializing in forecasting, such as Global Weather Corporation and IBM-owned The Weather Company, as well as with stakeholders, including the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the California Air Resources Board. Together, workshop participants discussed ways in which they could work together, and with CSU, to help turn a national smoke warning system into a reality.

Such a system could be a tremendous benefit to the general public. Last summer’s wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, for example, burned more than 1.6 million acres and generated smoke that covered as much as a third of the continental U.S. The haze dulled normally blue summer skies here on the Front Range of Colorado – and as far away as Texas and Michigan. It also brought with it harmful particles that can trigger asthma attacks as well as more serious health issues. Massive wildfires like these are only predicted to increase in frequency with climate change.

As Ravishankara notes, “people really don’t feel climate change.” An increase of two degrees itself might hardly be noticeable. But, he says, we will feel the effects of climate change. Especially when it comes to our health, as is the case with a heavier wildfire smoke burden. And when it impacts health, he says, “that’s when it becomes personal.”

The workshops, which will continue in 2017 and 2018, are being held with support from The A.J. Kauvar Foundation.