Articles | Volume 16, issue 10
Research article
14 Oct 2016
Research article |  | 14 Oct 2016

Local and regional smoke impacts from prescribed fires

Owen F. Price, Bronwyn Horsey, and Ningbo Jiang

Abstract. Smoke from wildfires poses a significant threat to affected communities. Prescribed burning is conducted to reduce the extent and potential damage of wildfires, but produces its own smoke threat. Planners of prescribed fires model the likely dispersion of smoke to help manage the impacts on local communities. Significant uncertainty remains about the actual smoke impact from prescribed fires, especially near the fire, and the accuracy of smoke dispersal models.

To address this uncertainty, a detailed study of smoke dispersal was conducted for one small (52 ha) and one large (700 ha) prescribed fire near Appin in New South Wales, Australia, through the use of stationary and handheld pollution monitors, visual observations and rain radar data, and by comparing observations to predictions from an atmospheric dispersion model. The 52 ha fire produced a smoke plume about 800 m high and 9 km long. Particle concentrations (PM2.5) reached very high peak values (> 400 µg m−3) and high 24 h average values (> 100 µg m−3) at several locations next to or within ∼ 500 m downwind from the fire, but low levels elsewhere. The 700 ha fire produced a much larger plume, peaking at ∼ 2000 m altitude and affecting downwind areas up to 14 km away. Both peak and 24 h average PM2.5 values near the fire were lower than for the 52 ha fire, but this may be because the monitoring locations were further away from the fire. Some lofted smoke spread north against the ground-level wind direction. Smoke from this fire collapsed to the ground during the night at different times in different locations. Although it is hard to attribute particle concentrations definitively to smoke, it seems that the collapsed plume affected a huge area including the towns of Wollongong, Bargo, Oakdale, Camden and Campbelltown (∼ 1200 km2). PM2.5 concentrations up to 169 µg m−3 were recorded on the morning following the fire. The atmospheric dispersion model accurately predicted the general behaviour of both plumes in the early phases of the fires, but was poor at predicting fine-scale variation in particulate concentrations (e.g. places 500 m from the fire). The correlation between predicted and observed varied between 0 and 0.87 depending on location. The model also completely failed to predict the night-time collapse of the plume from the 700 ha fire.

This study provides a preliminary insight into the potential for large impacts from prescribed fire smoke to NSW communities and the need for increased accuracy in smoke dispersion modelling. More research is needed to better understand when and why such impacts might occur and provide better predictions of pollution risk.

Short summary
We measured particulate levels at distances ranging from 50 m to 20 km from two prescribed fires and compared the values to those predicted from an atmospheric dispersion model. The model performed well during the day but not for areas close to the fire (under 1 km), which experienced high pollution peaks and did not predict night-time pollution in one of the fires over an area of 120 000 ha caused by a temperature inversion.
Final-revised paper