New technology helps fire managers anticipate smoke problems

September 15, 2003

PORTLAND, Ore. September 15, 2003. Smoke from planned fires and wildfires affects air quality and visibility. Firefighters, forest managers, farmers, motorists, and people with respiratory problems all need accurate and timely information regarding smoke and visibility when fires burn. BlueSkyRAINS is a technology that allows fire professionals and ordinary citizens to coordinate outdoor activities around fire operations. It is currently being used daily by incident command teams for about 100 wildfires in the Western States.

"When smoke is generated from a wildland fire, BlueSkyRAINS helps people to determine where the smoke will go and how much of a problem it may be for breathing and visibility," explains Sue Ferguson, an atmospheric scientist based in at the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Research Station and developer of the modeling system. "BlueSkyRAINS is a technology that allows you to go to one centralized Web site to see the potential accumulation of smoke from planned fires and wildfires. It shows the patterns of predicted smoke concentrations in relation to cities, hospitals, schools, parks, or other elements of interest."

Ferguson, based in Seattle at PNW Research Station's Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory, says her team of scientists began work on this technology in 2000. By 2002 the first prototype was up and running. The first tests began with the Quartz Mountain wildfire complex in the Pasayton Wilderness of the Okanogan National Forest in Washington's northern Cascades.

"We worked with smoke managers, burn bosses, and air regulators for many years prior to developing BlueSkyRAINS," Ferguson says. "As wildfires became larger and more frequent and the use of prescribed fire increased, smoke became an increasingly difficult problem. Smoke doesn't know about fences making it difficult to coordinate across land ownerships. So we came up with the idea of a centralized, automated system."

The BlueSkyRAINS was created by Ferguson and her team by partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal, state, tribal, and local agencies that share concerns about clean air and healthy forests.

"This summer we worked directly with incident command teams on several wildfires in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico. Now we're gearing up to help with the prescribed fire season. This is the first technology that allows everyone to see where planned fires and wildfires are and to see the potential impacts of smoke from those fires," says Ferguson.

Check out the BlueSkyRAINS system at
Source: Sue Ferguson,, 206-732-7828, Seattle.
Media assistance: Sherri Richardson-Dodge, 503-808-2137.

USDA Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Research Station

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