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Volume 16, issue 10 | Copyright

Special issue: Natural hazard event analyses for risk reduction and...

Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 2247-2257, 2016
© Author(s) 2016. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Research article 14 Oct 2016

Research article | 14 Oct 2016

Local and regional smoke impacts from prescribed fires

Owen F. Price1, Bronwyn Horsey1, and Ningbo Jiang2 Owen F. Price et al.
  • 1Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia
  • 2Climate and Atmospheric Science Branch, Office of Environment and Heritage, Sydney, NSW 2141, Australia

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 (52ha) and one large (700ha) 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 52ha fire produced a smoke plume about 800m high and 9km long. Particle concentrations (PM2.5) reached very high peak values (>400µgm−3) and high 24h average values (>100µgm−3) at several locations next to or within ∼500m downwind from the fire, but low levels elsewhere. The 700ha fire produced a much larger plume, peaking at ∼2000m altitude and affecting downwind areas up to 14km away. Both peak and 24h average PM2.5 values near the fire were lower than for the 52ha 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 (∼1200km2). PM2.5 concentrations up to 169µgm−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 500m 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 700ha 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.

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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.
We measured particulate levels at distances ranging from 50 m to 20 km from two prescribed fires...