WSU lab provides critical air quality forecasting tool


By Tina Hilding, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture

PULLMAN, Wash. – When the wildfire season heats up, agencies around the Pacific and Inland Northwest look to Washington State University to help them see how fires will affect air quality.

WSU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research runs AIRPACT (the Air Indicator Report for Public Awareness and Community Tracking), an air-quality forecasting system serving up daily forecasts via the Web.

AIRPACT was among the first high-resolution air-quality forecast systems in the country, and the Pacific Northwest remains a leader in air-quality forecasting, said Joe Vaughan, research associate professor in the WSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. AIRPACT results are used by agencies in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to provide critical guidance to help agency officials make determinations about burn bans or health advisories.

“We certainly hear about it if our system goes down,” Vaughan said.

AIRPACT uses weather forecasts and pollution emissions data to predict concentrations of pollution, such as ozone and small particles, and their movement across the region. High levels of these pollutants cause health problems ranging from asthma to cardiovascular distress.

In the case of wildfires, AIRPACT acquires satellite-based wildfire data, estimates smoke emissions and then predicts concentrations of small particles that pose health risks – all as part of the nightly air-quality forecast.

AIRPACT considers factors such as winds, atmospheric stability that can suppress dispersion and how weather and terrain interact. Regional meteorologists use the model along with several other tools, including fire behavior reports and satellite imagery.

With below average temperatures in July, the fire season in the Pacific Northwest may not match last year’s record-setting season, although it is too soon to be sure.

With a three-year federal Joint Fire Science Program grant, the WSU researchers are working to more accurately model fire behavior so they can better predict smoke emissions, plume rise and resulting air quality. The current model bases pollution predictions on fire behavior from the previous day.

“We’re trying to model emissions more dynamically, which is computationally quite intensive,” said Vaughan.

The work is funded by NW-AIRQUEST, which includes Idaho, Oregon and Washington agencies. To see hourly projected wildfire smoke concentrations for the Pacific and Inland Northwest regions, visit


Joe Vaughan, WSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, 509-335-2832,
Tina Hilding, WSU Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture communications, 509-335-5095,