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00000176-d8fc-dce8-adff-faff71c90000Idaho's wildfire season is here, and that means you're going to be hearing a lot of firefighting jargon to describe what's going on.We put together this list of key firefighting terms you're likely to hear in the next few months.GlossaryHotshots: A highly trained hand crew of wildland firefighters that works on the ground to contain a blaze. Crews usually operate in 20-person teams, and are sent in first to deal with the worst fire conditions on short notice. Hotshots have a high level of physical fitness. They can carry up to 50 pounds along with a chainsaw and shovel. There are more than 100 hotshot crews around the country, and the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise coordinates the crews.Hand crew: Wildland firefighters that could have different levels of training. They work on the ground with hand tools like shovels, chainsaws and axes. They dig fire lines (also called "firebreaks") to try and get the fire under control.Smokejumper: An elite firefighter that parachutes into remote wildland fires. They work to suppress and put out fires before they become a bigger problem, and can adapt to quickly changing situations. Smokejumpers have to be fit and highly trained. They carry heavy packs and protective suits and work in mountainous terrain. Idaho has three smokejumping bases in Boise, McCall and Grangeville.Fire lines or firebreaks: Usually about 10-12 feet wide, fire lines are cut with shovels and axes to contain and suppress a blaze. Hand crews -- including hotshots -- will dig lines and clear out brush so the fire will get choked off without fuel.Containment levels: The agency that manages a fire will say how "contained" a fire is. At 100 percent containment a fire isn't out. That means a complete fire line has been dug around the fire. A contained fire can quickly become out of control again with a shift in weather.Controlled fire: This is when a wildfire is considered out. Here's how the BLM office in Idaho Falls describes it: "Think of a container -- say, a mason jar. A fire is contained when it's all 'bottled in,' like in a container. The fire may still be burning, but if a distinct fire line is built around the entire perimeter so that there is no chance for the fire to escape or spot over outside the line, then the fire fighters declare the fire 'contained.' "Human caused: This means someone accidentally or intentionally caused a fire. This could be from a discarded cigarette, a embers from a campfire, or even sparks from a truck along a forested highway. As Smokey says, nine times out of 10, a wildfire is human-caused.Fire danger: This is a rating system from the U.S. Forest Service that helps predict how likely a wildfire could start in an area. It takes into account the weather forecast, terrain and personnel. "Low" means a blaze would likely not spread, while "moderate" means a fire could start but could be contained. "High" to "very high" means fires can catch and spread easily, while "extreme" means the conditions are so difficult and fast-changing that fighting the blaze directly is rare.Red flag warning: These warning are issued by regional National Weather Service offices, and help firefighting management teams understand the weather-related risks for fire starts. Drought and low humidity mixed with windy conditions usually spell a red flag warning. Burning bans sometimes come along with these warnings.Complex: Two or more larger wildfires in the same general area. A complex is managed by a unified team of firefighters.Air attack: Usually used during the initial stages of a small blaze, or as a suppression tool during large fires. Air attacks can drop fire retardant or water to help support hand and engine crews. Multi-engine or heavy air tankers, single-engine air tankers, and helicopters are the three most common types of aircraft that can be used. Multi-engine tankers carry the most retardant, while helicopters (or helitankers) can make more precise but smaller drops.Fire retardant: Also known as slurry, these USDA-approved chemicals are dropped by aircraft over wildfires that management teams believe could grow and become dangerous. It's often used to protect private property. A 2010 ruling from the U.S. District Court in Montana raised questions about its environmental effects.Incident management teams: Operating from level one through five, these teams of firefighters can be sent around the country to suppress fires. Type 1 and 2 IMT's often work on the most difficult and dangerous fires, and can include local firefighting resources.ResourcesWe also pulled together these key resources where you can find up-to-date information about wildfires.The National Interagency Fire Center coordinates fire management teams around the country, and is based in Boise. This year, NIFC predicted a higher level of fire danger in Idaho forests, while the grassland should get a bit of a break.The Bureau of Land Management's site will update Idahoans about fire restrictions on public land.InciWeb updates fire information around the country, giving handy info about road closures during the summer travel season. You'll also find maps, photos, and growth potential for a particular fire.And if you tweet, consider following these organizations and agencies for fire updates in 140 characters.

Boise-Based NASA/NOAA Mission Studies Wildfire Smoke To Improve Air Quality Prediction Models

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Molly Wampler, Boise State Public Radio
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NASA Research Pilot Tim Vest flies over the Grand Canyon to return to the smoke plume (left of the frame, in the distance).

Thick smoke from summertime wildfires can present major health risks. Prediction models help locals prepare for poor air quality to come, but the data behind those models is not as conclusive as we might think.

 

 

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Credit Molly Wampler, Boise State Public Radio News
The DC-8 rests before another flight.

I board NASA’s DC-8 research plane in Boise, and we head down to a wildfire just north of the Grand Canyon. 

Most people visit the attraction for the views, but the scientists on board are most interested in the wildfire smoke that’ll be clouding the scenery. In a little over an hour, we’ll descend to around 15,000 feet to fly straight into the plumes.

 

Carsten Warneke is a mission scientist on the project, and explains that the goal of the mission – called FIREX-AQ – is to gather more data about wildfire smoke. Understanding how it behaves will help them improve the scientific models that help make air quality predictions.

 

“These models are based on these emission estimates that are quite uncertain,” Warneke explains. “And in many cases, the forecasts are very good, but there’s a lot of cases where they are not so good.”

There’s just not enough research about smoke yet, but this mission wants to fix that. For Warneke, the daily weather report is an example of how he hopes the air quality forecast will be used.

“We all rely on weather forecasts to be really good,” Warneke says. “But I think once our confidence in the air quality forecast gets better, people will really start to notice.”

The DC-8 plane is just one research vessel on this mission. A van drives into the smoke at ground-level. And a few other planes are able to maneuver valleys, or fly at really high altitudes. NASA even uses their satellites to help track the smoke. 

“We're trying to cover the measurements of smoke from all directions, from really as close as we can get with mobile labs up to the DC-8 aircraft, and even higher up from there,” Warneke says. “So we’re really covering from the ground up to the satellites and everything in between.”

As wildfire season becomes longer by the year, it’s even more important to understand what is in smoke and how it moves across an area. That’s important so people can prepare for the conditions. 

“If you imagine you look at the air quality forecast and think ‘Oh! Yeah, Boise will be clear tomorrow!’ But it turns out differently and it’s all smoked in, you wish you would have known that the day before,” Warneke says. 

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Credit Molly Wampler, Boise State Public Radio News
A look towards the front of the plane shows research machines crowding the cabin.

And preparation is important because of how bad wildfire smoke can be for our health. Heather Kimmel is the Director of Health Promotion at the American Lung Association in Boise. She says that smoke from wildfires is especially dangerous because of how tiny the particles are – about ⅙ the diameter of a human hair. 

Because of their size, the particles can get lodged in our lungs, and can even make their way into our bloodstream. And that can lead to some serious health problems. 

“We can experience inflammation, infection and we can have a number of other health impacts associated with breathing in particle pollution,” Kimmel explains. “We know that exposure to wildfire smoke and particle pollution can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and also exacerbate underlying heart and lung disease.”

So, improved forecasts are just one thing the federal agencies are working on to keep people healthy. They’re also trying to better understand the chemical makeup of wildfire smoke. 

Smoke is made up of tons of different chemicals and molecules which vary at different spots within the plume – they’re still filling in the gaps of their knowledge here. Once they learn more, this research will give public health experts a better understanding of how smoke affects humans. 

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Credit Screenshot from NASA
A NASA map shows the plane's path on this day. The plane took many laps through the plume.

Warneke explains that fires aren’t going away anytime soon, so studying the smoke in this much detail is the only way we might be able to improve health protection from smoke. 

“We are in a situation where there will be fires and there will be lots of fires, and we basically have to live with it,” he says.

 

On Monday, the DC-8 will begin the next phase of the mission with a flight to Kansas, where it will begin research on agricultural fires. These fires burn different fuel and emit totally different chemicals than wildfires – and therefore have a different impact on human health. It’s just another way NASA and NOAA are working to improve our understanding of smoke, and how the public can best stay healthy in smoky air.

 

For more local news, follow the KBSX newsroom on Twitter @KBSX915

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