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WA Scientist Rolls Out New Longer-Term Smoke Forecast

Courtesy of Washington Department of Ecology

Washington’s state environmental agency has developed a new tool for determining where smoke from wildfires is going to disperse. The goal is to give people who are downwind more time so they can prepare.

When a wildfire breaks out somewhere in Washington, there’s a good chance Ramil Dhammapala is figuring out where the smoke will go.

“You just don’t know what fires will do, if they are new fires or if existing fires will grow further, if they will be brought under control. Also, the other big unknown is the plume rise. How high do plumes get straight out of the fire?” said Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist at the state Department of Ecology.

Dhammapala takes that information, figures in the wind direction and speed, possibility of rain and a variety of other factors. Then he develops a smoke forecast.

Last summer, his forecasts looked two or three days into the future. This year he’s extending them to five days. Why? Demand from the public.

“One of the most common questions we got was, ‘Where can I go this weekend for a hike?’ or ‘What will my favorite trailhead be like?’ Can I expect it to clear in time for some event they were planning this weekend?” he said.

As with weather forecasts, the farther you look into the future the less accurate smoke forecasts will be. But Dhammapala says, as technology advances, he’s becoming more confident in his ability to peer ahead a couple of extra days.

As he refined his forecasting tool, he consulted with his colleagues at the state, with scientists at Washington State University and at local air quality agencies. Spokane Clean Air Agency spokeswoman Stephanie May says the scientists there provided feedback. She says, for now, will stay with the practice of looking ahead only two days when they issue their air quality recommendations, "but we do think that this new Ecology tool is a great resource for those that are looking to plan out further in advance," she said.

You can see the map for the five-day forecast at the Department of Ecology’s website.