LOUISVILLE, Colo. (CBS4)– Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have teamed up with Boulder County Health to help analyze air quality following the historic fire. While scientists say initial results were not alarming, there are some caveats. The air quality will likely change with the weather.

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For now?

“I basically want to convey good news,” said Carsten Warneke, a research scientist with the NOAA chemical sciences laboratory, “I’ll give an example, so we drove through one of the neighborhoods and we did see some signal from some smoke of course but the biggest signal was actually a car that was idling there so that was higher than what we saw from the burnt down buildings.”

NOAA’s scientists have extensive experience when it comes to looking at wildfire smoke and emissions in general and had the perfect tool for the job- a mobile air quality lab.

“We’ve been doing some air quality measurements around the city of Louisville at the request of Boulder County Public Health and we wanted to look and see if there are any potentially toxic emissions that were still coming out of the burn area,” said Jessica Gilman, a research chemist at the NOAA chemical sciences lab.

NOAA’s mobile lab is equipped with devices that can measure the presence of hundreds of different chemicals, from plastics to vehicle emissions. It can collect data in real-time as well as air samples in canisters to be brought back to the nearby lab to analyze.

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“Our entire goal was to map ever single neighborhood, street by street, house by house, just to see if any of our scientific instrumentation was able to pick up any of these important emission sources,” she said.

In the cockpit, as Gilman refers to it, the passenger can look at the real-time data to see where there are spikes in emissions. A camera on the dash records surroundings so they can look back at what could have potentially caused it, like an idling car or something actively burning.

Even though it still smells like smoke, Warneke says the spikes showing up from the wildfire are very low.

“The concentrations are very small if you’re in one of these neighborhoods, it still smells like smoke, but your nose is extremely sensitive to smoke , so that’s evolution, right? We smell smoke and we smell rotten food, so the concentrations that your nose detects is almost as good as our super high-tech instruments for smoke, so the concentrations are really, really small,” he said.

The Boulder County Public Health Department says the data being collected is part of longer-term research and says in the near term, residents should be aware the air quality can change.

In a news release, BCPH stated, “Currently, snow and wet soil are keeping particulates on the ground. As weather conditions get warmer, the soil in affected areas will dry out and when the winds pick up again, air quality will fluctuate. BCPH will release an alert when air quality conditions change.

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While some of our partners are gathering data that will give our community a glimpse of long-term recovery, BCPH is focusing on our community’s immediate needs to ensure safety guidance is appropriate now.”

What BCPH is doing now:
• Working with our partners to collect accurate and timely data to inform decision making.
• Air motioning stations have been strategically positioned throughout the burn area and in surrounding communities to track potentially harmful ultra-small particles in the air.
• BCPH will review data related to air quality and respiratory illnesses at local hospitals in Boulder County through our syndromic surveillance data system, allowing us to identify air quality-related respiratory illnesses trends proactively.

BCPH says it will send out news releases when air quality is a concern. Residents can sign up to receive those at BoulderCounty.org.

Jamie Leary