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UAF Smoke website helps Alaskans cope with wildfire

Chena Pump Road at seen from University of Alaska Fairbanks is blanketed by smoke from the Minto Lakes Fire on Tuesday morning, June 28, 2022.
Chena Pump Road as seen from University of Alaska Fairbanks is blanketed by smoke from the Minto Lakes Fire on Tuesday morning, June 28, 2022.

This year’s Alaska fire season is moving toward a record for acres burned. This week’s heavy wildfire smoke in Fairbanks is forecast to persist through the weekend, as several large blazes including the 11,000-acre Minto Lakes fire north of town remain active due to hot, dry weather. That’s raised questions about where the smoke will be next, and how to handle the health risks.

The state's air quality division has a website devoted to Alaskan’s coping with wildfire smoke: There is another from the state health department:

Scientists at University of Alaska Fairbanks have been forecasting smoke direction and density for about a decade, and posting it on the website, UAF Smoke.

And the website is proving very popular this week.

“We see up to several hundred thousand users per day, so even people outside Alaska check out the page.”

That’s Dr. Martin Stuefer, Research Professor at the Alaska Climate Research Center at UAF.

Stuefer and colleagues at the Alaska Climate Research Center take wildfire data from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center (AICC), and crunch it with an algorithm and turn it into animation.

“It is a simple representation of where fires are.”

The current fire situation is displayed, but that’s not all. The page uses a weather chemistry model to discern what is in the smoke.

“Which calculates the emissions from wildfires and plots the dispersion of the smoke downwind from the wildfires.” Stuefer said.

Emissions, wind, temperature help figure out the dynamics of the smoke plume. The animation on the page today shows smoke and particulates in Healy, Denali Park, Nenana, Fairbanks, Delta and Tok.

The heavy particulate level in our air is reminiscent of the smokey years 2004 and 2005, which both set records. 2004 was Alaska’s worst, when 6,590,140 acres, equivalent to the size of Vermont burned.

“2004 was the worst year; and we had 40 days of the lowest visibility, less than a mile in Fairbanks and really high particulate concentrations,” Stuefer said. Alaska data on particulate emissions is on the state’s air-quality page:

2005 was Alaska’s third-most burned year on record, at 4.6 million (4,663,819) acres, an area of Alaska larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island burned that year, just behind 1957 when 5.06 million acres burned. Stuefer says 2022 may also set records.

“But, uh, this year's the earliest date of our records, when we surpassed 1 million acres burned,” he said.

Mark Smith is the Air Quality Meteorologist for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, Air Quality/Air Monitoring Division. He says hot, dry weather in most of Alaska will continue for awhile.

“Looks like we're not gonna have any reprieve at your location for central and Eastern until maybe July 8th,” he said.

Sarah Yoder is with the state’s Environmental Health program, and regularly gives presentations on wildfire smoke.

“Really try and minimize how much you're out and about. If you can stay home and have cleaner air,” she said.

She says if you can keep windows closed and use a whole-house ventilation system, or a room air filter, that would help, especially folks with respiratory problems like asthma or long COVID.

“Do-it-yourself is kind of an neat option because it really takes a box fan and, like, a filter you would have for a furnace. So, those are good, especially when the fancier air filters run out,” she said.

Yoder says if you have to go outside, wear a mask – the best you can find to filter the tiniest particles.

“What we still say is for PM 2.5 particles are so small that even the, the cloth masks, aren't going to stop the PM 2.5 particles, 'cause they are so small. So you really want, if you have to be outside, is to get the best fitting mask that you have with the tightest seal,” she said.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.