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Where There’s Smoke
November 5, 2023

Where There’s Smoke

Reading Time: 5 minutes

What It’s Like to Fly Through a Plume of Wildfire Smoke, I fly through wildfire plumes in a converted passenger plane. Let me tell you about the view from the cockpit., Wildfire smoke: What it’s like to fly a plane through a plume, for research.

In What It’s Like, people tell us, well, what it’s like to have experiences many of us have not even imagined. In this entry, we spoke to Carsten Warneke, a research physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who investigates how wildfires affect air quality in the U.S. One way he does this is by flying through the smoke plumes of active fires in a passenger aircraft that has been retooled for scientific research, in order to collect and analyze samples of the smoke-filled air. As wildfires increase in frequency and intensity due to anthropogenic climate change, they pose a public health risk, and it is essential for the agency to measure the impact of wildfires on air quality.

Warneke told us about a day in his life, flying a NASA DC-8 aircraft during the Williams Flats Fire, a wildfire that burned more than 5,000 acres in northeastern Washington in August 2019. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

We knew what was coming when we saw the monster of a plume. It was so much bigger than anything else we had seen. But we are scientists, so we were geeking out. The excitement for measuring such a large plume trumped everything.

Our goal was to measure as close to the fire as possible to get emissions and then follow the plume downwind to see how those emissions changed.

The plume was 20,000 to 25,000 feet in altitude, so we decided to fly through around 1,000 feet below the top of the plume. You can’t fly directly over the fire because the updraft is so large it would be extremely dangerous. In a fire that size, there are pieces of branches and stuff going a couple thousand feet into the air, so we had to go higher up.

It was a nice day, with clear, bright blue skies otherwise. The Williams Flats plume was so thick that the light attenuation was only 10 percent of what it was outside of the plume. Most of the time during the flight, I sat in the cockpit with the pilots, in a jump seat. When we initially flew through the plume, the cockpit turned this eerie orange color and you couldn’t see anything outside. It smelled like fire too. It was like sitting next to a campfire. This all took less than a minute, and then we were back in clear blue skies. The smell lingered for a little while, and then it was gone too.

We repeated this over and over, getting farther away from the fire, to measure the air at different distances. So, with each pass, it got brighter and smelled less like smoke.

The planning for these missions is about a three-year time frame from when we decide to begin the campaign. We need to decide which instruments to bring and how we put those instruments on the plane. Then, once we have all that decided, we move on to deciding where the instrument is going to go, exactly how heavy it is, and if the aircraft is even worthy of carrying out the campaign. As you can imagine, an aircraft is about the worst environment you want to put your high-performing atmospheric instruments in. These instruments are like the Formula One race cars of atmospheric chemistry.

Each instrument is a few hundred pounds and around the size of a washer/dryer combo. They have a lot going on: a monitor, weird pumps, vacuum, fittings, and so on. The window next to each of these instruments has been replaced with an aluminum plate that has a little wing on the outside of it, to be more aerodynamic and reduce drag. Within that little wing, we stick the tube to collect air samples. There is a first-class passenger seat next to each instrument for the scientist that is in charge of making it run properly.

It gets really bumpy during the flight. A lot of airsickness bags are used. The people who do this more often know that you need to be well rested and eat properly to keep the airsickness at bay. I usually start with sweet stuff—chocolate wafers are my favorite—and then switch to salty, which is usually potato chips, and drink a lot of water. Some people also use airsickness patches.

All of the instruments make the environment extremely noisy. Everyone has a headset on to communicate and help with the noise. We are up in each flight for eight or more hours, so we have to keep ourselves entertained. We play trivia over our headsets for hours, and each flight we would have a different theme. Of course, it gets interrupted when some interesting science happens.

There was one incident that happened during a flight through a plume in Montana, where there was a grass fire that was basically already extinguished. There was still the smoke plume on top, but it was clear under that.

Even though the fire was already extinguished, there was still a little residual heat, and we flew through it at maybe 10,000 feet. As we went through the plume, the updraft was still so strong that the plane jumped up 100 meters within a couple of seconds.

At that moment, I was standing in the cabin, and it bumped me up and I levitated for a second before we bumped down on the other side. At that moment, everyone went silent over the headset, then, a minute later, the pilot said, ‘If we do this again, let’s make sure we have seat belt signs on.’

That was the scariest moment of the whole FIREX campaign. We were really surprised that the fire still had that type of power even after being extinguished. Other than that, most of the campaign wasn’t scary. The pilots radiate confidence. When they tell me it’s safe, I totally believe them.

The Williams Flats Fire was a large fire, but with no structures or lives lost, and wildfires are a part of the natural cycle, so they are good, in a sense. We didn’t fly any fires during our FIREX campaign where lives or structures were lost, but we talked about that possibility a lot before starting the campaign. It doesn’t feel right to do science on a fire that people are losing their lives or homes to. On the other hand, flying over them would mean potentially helping the people that are downwind, because when structures burn, you might have a smoke composition with a lot of toxins from plastics burning and so on. So science is still very important. People’s lives, health, and wellness are always most important.

We did the FIREX campaign in 2019, which was one of the lowest fire years we have had in a decade now, but wildfires have been recurring for years and years, and the impacts will stay with us for decades to come. Researching wildfires will continue to be important to our lab, especially since our largest air-quality-exceedance days happen with wildfire smoke these days.


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