Using the Smoke Sense App During the Camp Fire in California

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By Wayne E. Cascio, MD, FACC

On Nov. 8, 2018, at 6:33 am the Camp Fire erupted with a fury in Butte County near the town of Paradise. This rolling inferno turned a small, quiet community to ashes, leaving little more than memories behind. Even those of us who were not present have a new understanding of the destruction of wildfires — stories from survivors and images of the scorched cars that carried people to safety through the flames have been shared all around the world. And we are all thankful for the heroism of the firefighters and fire managers who put it all on the line to save lives.

The images from NASA’s satellites tell another story, of massive amounts of particle and gas emissions rising into the atmosphere, eventually impacting San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and many other cities and towns with wildfire smoke. Coincidentally, I was in Sacramento to give a presentation on EPA’s wildfire research at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), along with many of my EPA colleagues, when I learned of the tragedy of Paradise. I discovered firsthand how smoke originating from a wildfire, even one almost one hundred miles away, can affect the lives of those near and far from the fire.

In only a few days, millions of Californians were under a blanket of smoke that affected visibility and, for some, their health, and EPA’s public health information, including the Smoke Sense app, was there to help. In the first two days of the fire, air quality in Sacramento was mildly impacted, causing a haziness and an acrid smell of smoke. During casual conversations with people on the street, a comment about the smoke would invariably be made and I would demonstrate the Smoke Sense app on my mobile phone. Just about everyone who saw Smoke Sense wanted to download it.

SmokeSense IconThe Smoke Sense app was developed as a citizen science project by one of our scientists, Ana Rappold, and her team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Nearly 20,000 people are now using the app to learn about air quality. I’ve been a strong advocate of Smoke Sense and I’ve demonstrated the app just about everywhere – on the street, in hotel lobbies, in a jet taxiing to the gate, and even in an elevator. Yet, I’d never had an occasion to use the app to convey real-time, important information.

In Sacramento and San Francisco, Smoke Sense provided useful information about local air quality, actions I should take to limit my exposure, and where the smoke was located as well as what was anticipated for the next day. Many people were curious about the app and were amazed that it provided so much useful information.

While I was in San Francisco, air quality deteriorated further, and I estimate only about one of 15 people who were outdoors were making some effort to reduce exposure to smoke. People were using bandannas, paper painter’s masks, and surgical masks, but those do not offer much protection. However, I did see some N-95 respirators in use, which EPA recommends during smoke events when being outdoors is unavoidable.

Individual and non-profit organizations were stepping up to provide N-95 respirators to those in need throughout the area. In fact, I witnessed one group on Market Street distributing N-95 masks to all who would take them. Some people wore them correctly, but for others, the masks fit poorly or weren’t doing much good hanging around their necks. One older man who was walking slowly assisted by his cane and wearing a blue paper painter’s mask eagerly downloaded the Smoke Sense app and immediately began to explore the map showing where smoke was present. We later learned he is 84 years old and has heart disease. Two days later we saw him with an N-95 respirator making his rounds in the neighborhood. If he needed to be outdoors the use of the proper mask should offer some protection. Success!

Not all of those I spoke to were open to the idea of protecting themselves from the smoke. While on a trolley, a man riding with us across town asked why we were wearing masks. He acknowledged that smoke might be a problem for someone with asthma, but otherwise was not concerned. It showed me the great need to educate people about the potential health impacts of smoke from wildfires.

As the origins and consequences of the Camp Fire are investigated and studied, I trust that lessons learned can be used to prevent future wildfires and the tragic loss of life and property. In the meantime, Smoke Sense is doing its small part to help.

About the author: Wayne Cascio is the director of the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, U.S. EPA.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Voluntary, partnership approaches reduce nutrients in Colorado’s Cherry Creek Watershed

By Ayn Schmit

In late September the Cherry Creek Stewardship Partners and the Cherry Creek Basin Water Quality Authority hosted managers from EPA Region 8’s Office of Water Protection for a tour of local efforts to address phosphorus and other pollution and to better manage stormwater. The Stewardship Partners organization was formed 20 years ago in recognition that solving water pollution concerns was only possible if the many jurisdictions and organizations in the Cherry Creek watershed worked together and pooled their resources and brainpower.

The Cherry Creek watershed is home to many people in the southeast Denver Metro area, including parts of Denver, Aurora, Littleton and Parker. We started our morning at the iconic Cherry Creek State Park (the most visited state park in Colorado!) and learned about the accumulation of phosphorus in Cherry Creek Reservoir. Soils in the area are naturally high in phosphorus, and as a result, erosion along many of the creeks brings this additional phosphorus into the reservoir. Add urban wastewater and the runoff of lawn fertilizer, pet waste, and other sources of nutrients into the mix and you end up with a complex set of challenges for local water and wastewater officials to navigate. The Cherry Creek Basin Water Quality Authority is at the heart of these challenges as it works with many partners to meet phosphorus limits in the reservoir.

Our next visit was in Parker, where the recently completed Reuter-Hess Reservoir provides for a growing demand for drinking water. Parker and other communities are looking to integrate their management of wastewater, drinking water and stormwater to enable multiple cycles of reuse. One innovative example is working with developers to use natural drainages to filter nutrients and other stormwater pollutants running off driveways and streets, and allow it to percolate and move more slowly down the watershed. Imagine a new house with your own creek out your back door! And — in a win-win for developers and the environment — local stormwater managers figured out how to do this without losing any housing sites at a large development coming into the area.

Southeast Metro Stormwater rain garden, Centennial, Colorado

Southeast Metro Stormwater rain garden, Centennial, Colorado

Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority model rain garden, Centennial, Colo.
Next, we stopped in to visit a rain garden in the ‘front yard’ of the Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority. Planted with native grasses rippling in the breeze, it is a beautiful oasis and a testament to designing with nature.

Cherry Creek Valley Ecological Park, Centennial, Colorado

Cherry Creek Valley Ecological Park, Centennial, Colorado

Cherry Creek Valley Ecological Park, Centennial, Colo.
The final stop was the ‘crown jewel’ of the tour — a 25-acre park featuring restored riparian areas along Cherry Creek in the middle of the town of Centennial. The Cherry Creek Valley Ecological Park blends restored riparian areas and wetlands, where the slopes of the Creek were reshaped and replanted with native vegetation. A wooden boardwalk winds through wetland areas, and playful ‘rock’ drop structures maintain the Creek channel while providing a place for kids to splash and play in the water. Sure enough, while we were visiting, a large group of preschool children and their teachers and parents were taking full advantage of the sunny day to enjoy the water and hop across the rocks.

This project is an inspiring collaboration between Urban Drainage and Flood Control, Arapaho County, Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority, Parker Jordan Metropolitan Authority District and others. The park’s features reduce erosion of phosphorus-laden sediment that would end up in Cherry Creek Reservoir, while providing a fantastic nature-based educational amenity for local residents. The pride that the watershed partners take in this project was very evident and well deserved!

EPA appreciated the opportunity to learn about the great work the Cherry Creek Stewardship Partners and their member organizations are doing. Seeing locally led water quality protection in action reminds us why we do what we do!

About the author: Ayn Schmit is Senior Adviser in the Region 8 Office of Water Protection.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.