Weather Watch

Want to know where smoke from California’s wildfires is headed? This website makes it easy

View of Cerro Alto off Highway 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero during 2017’s Thomas Fire.
View of Cerro Alto off Highway 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero during 2017’s Thomas Fire. www.AppsPhotography.com

As the most massive wildfires in the state’s history continue to burn, I have received quite a few inquiries about smoke plumes and how you can track them.

Meteorologists, air quality resource managers, first responders and members of the public have discovered NOAA’s High-Resolution Rapid Refresh-Smoke (HRRR-Smoke) air quality modeling system.

The base HRRR-Smoke weather model has a resolution 3-km (1.8 miles), runs in real-time and is updated every hour. Like other numerical models, the HRRR-Smoke processes data from numerous sources, such as weather balloons, surface observations, aircraft, satellites and other atmospheric monitoring resources to approximate the physics, chemistry and dynamics of the atmosphere but at high resolutions on some of the most powerful computers in existence.

You see, movements of the atmosphere follow natural laws, which can be expressed in mathematical equations that can produce forecasts for a specific location.

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Air in the Tacoma area on Tuesday ranged from unhealthy for sensitive groups to moderate mostly due to wildfires burning in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. In the video, a map generated from satellite imagery shows the spread of smoky haze.

Unlike many other models, HRRR-Smoke utilizes Nexrad (Next-Generation Radar) data from a network of 159 high-resolution Doppler weather radars operated by the National Weather Service throughout the United States, including at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and assimilates this information every 15 minutes over a one-hour period. That provides near real-time detail, hence, the rapid refresh name. This model has become one of the meteorologist’s best friends in predicting thunderstorm and tornado development.

The HRRR-Smoke model can also predict the travel, extent and concentrations of smoke plumes at the Earth’s surface up to 6,000 feet above the ground from wildfires detected by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instruments installed on the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

I found the HRRR-Smoke to be very accurate. Currently, the model is run every six hours and creates smoke forecasts every hour out to 36 hours. You can view the graphical output at rapidrefresh.noaa.gov/hrrr/HRRRsmoke/.

At the website, you can find radiative fire power, near-surface smoke, followed by 1,000-foot AGL smoke, 6,000-foot AGL smoke and vertically integrated smoke (AGL is an abbreviation for Above Ground Level).

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There’s also a graphical presentation that will show you where the smoke plume is and where it’s heading up to 36 hours in the future. By clicking on the vertically integrated smoke option, you can get 10-meter (33 foot) surface winds (10 meters is the standard height for wind measurement) one-hour precipitation (rain or snow) rates, surface air temperatures and visibility all wonderful parameters for weather forecasting.

As of Saturday morning, most of the smoke is predicted to remain in Northern California, Oregon and Washington and travel eastward across the northern part of United States.

Another wonderful website for local air quality is San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) at slocleanair.org. On its website you can sign up to get mobile alerts right to your phone when the APCD issues air quality advisories and find current and future air quality predictions for your local Central Coast community.

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PG&E has started its daily aerial fire detection patrols across hundreds of miles of its service area. This year, PG&E has added two new routes to the patrols which assist the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and local fire agencies with early fire detection and response.

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John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
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