Understanding the Air Quality Impacts of Wildfires and Prescribed Burns in Urban Environments of California
To apply for this project, see the pre-proposal solicitation requirements on the solicitation landing page.
Scope of Work
The objective of this project is to evaluate the air quality impacts of wildfires and prescribed burns on urban population centers downwind of fires. During real-world wildfire events, the contractor will collect ambient air quality data (including criteria pollutants and air toxics) at select population centers located downwind of the fire smoke until its influence has subsided. Conversely, the contractor can collect ambient air quality data in population centers prior to fire smoke influences if such measurements can effectively achieve the objective of the project. The size of the fires, meteorological influences, and location of the measurements relative to the wildfires will be closely evaluated and considered in data and modeling analyses. The contractor will then develop and execute modeling scenarios to predict air quality impacts (in the same downwind population centers) of prescribed burning activities that would have been used to treat the vegetative fuels in the area affected by the wildfire(s). The contractor will analyze the measurement data and the modeling results to draw conclusions (with appropriate statistical confidence-building measures and sensitivity analyses) about the potential air quality benefits and trade-offs of prescribed burning activities compared to unplanned wildfires and wildfires modified by pre-fire fuels treatment that occur upwind of the population centers. The results should also include relative comparisons with air quality during business-as-usual (BAU).
California’s most destructive wildfires in recent history have occurred in the last 20 years. The severity and frequency of wildfires in the western U.S. have been increasing over the past decade and are becoming more difficult to contain. Public health concerns are also increasing over wildfires that reach the wildland-urban-interface (WUI; zone of transition between unoccupied/undeveloped land and human development) where human-made objects are engulfed and burned, releasing diverse and mostly uncharacterized levels of air toxics and reactive chemicals into the atmosphere. Wildfire smoke is often transported to local and regional population centers, affecting the surface-level air quality while worsening air pollution exposures to air pollutants and complicating the atmospheric formation of health-affecting air pollutants like ozone (O3) and secondary organic aerosols (SOA). The scale of these effects is still not fully understood.
The State has recognized the wildfire crisis and developed policies in response. In August 2020, Governor Newsom signed the Agreement for the Shared Stewardship of California’s Forests and Rangelands that called for improved coordination and a commitment to scale up proactive vegetation treatments to 1 million acres per year by 2025. The State of California also created the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force and released its Action Plan; a comprehensive framework for increasing both community and ecological resilience to wildfire in California. The Action Plan (Key Action 1.39) calls specifically on CARB to lead the interagency analysis of prescribed fire smoke data to document public health impacts compared with wildfire smoke exposures. However, data for such analyses are not readily available and models like the First Order Fire Effects Model (FOFEM; used to predict fuel consumption and wildfire smoke emissions), coupled with a chemical transport model (CTM), are often unable to fully evaluate the direct and indirect impact of wildfire smoke on air quality at downwind population centers. Multiple limitations impede the characterization of fires; for instance, the lack of chemical speciation in the emissions database and the difficulties in accurately accounting for the type of objects (both natural and human-made) that were burned, especially when wildfires reach WUI. Since modeling tools are largely designed for varieties of prescribed burning (where information on fuels, moistures, winds, etc. are available pre-burn), there is an opportunity to address the needs of the Action Plan by leveraging observations and scenario modeling to better represent the benefits and trade-offs of prescribed burning activities compared to unplanned wildfires that occur upwind of the population centers.
III. Scope of Work
The objective of this project is to evaluate the differences between the air quality impacts of wildfires and prescribed burning activities at various population centers located downwind of the fire smoke. The size of the wildfires, meteorological influences, and location of the measurements relative to the wildfires should be closely evaluated and considered in the analyses. The real-world measurements of wildfire smoke at downwind communities will be corroborated with scenario-based modeling of hypothetical prescribed burning activities to draw conclusions (with appropriate statistical confidence-building measures and sensitivity analyses) about the potential air quality benefits and trade-offs of prescribed burning activities compared to unplanned wildfires.
The contractor should develop a research plan and perform all tasks as described below.
Task 1. Design a Research Plan/Field Deployment Plan for Characterizing Wildfire Smoke
The contractor will leverage existing literature on the physical and chemical properties of particulate matter (PM) and gas phase species emitted from wildfires, demonstrated measurement methods used to evaluate wildfires, and close coordination with CALFIRE/CARB to develop and prepare for an incident air monitoring field campaign (e.g., deployment at moment’s notice). CARB strongly recommends the use of at least one mobile laboratory that is equipped with state-of-the-science research-grade instruments and regulatory-grade air quality monitors and other portable instruments to measure air pollutants in communities before or after, and during periods when their air quality is affected by wildfire smoke. In addition, the contractor should define a list of research questions or testable hypotheses to ensure that the atmospheric observations can be coupled effectively with scenario-based modeling of prescribed burning activities. These scenarios will allow consideration, for example, of prescribed burns of different sizes, at different locations, and under different meteorological conditions. In addition, the contractor will also develop a field deployment plan to measure fire smoke emitted during prescribed burning activities in coordination with CALFIRE/CARB to study the atmospheric processes (e.g., meteorology, transport, chemistry) and their effects on the fire smoke as it reaches downwind population centers. Multiple communities should be evaluated to improve the statistical confidence of the results.
The contractor must demonstrate their ability to deploy necessary air monitoring equipment at a moment's notice while ensuring that the deployment strategy can lead to reliable measurements required to satisfy the goals of the contract. Furthermore, the contractor should assess WUI areas for “representativeness” in terms of, for example, whether the WUI is in a priority area identified by CALFIRE for vegetative fuel treatments. Due to the mixed distribution of buildings and vegetation, WUI areas are generally characterized by complex fuel distributions and geographical environments. For example, WUI maps can incorporate the presence of human-made structures within or in the vicinity of high-density vegetation areas that are characterized by high risks of igniting fires regardless of the density of structures. By optimizing the timing and location of mobile measurements, this project should allow estimations of the differences in air pollutant levels of prescribed versus wildfires, which is critical given the interest in expanding the use of prescribed burns to minimize catastrophic wildfires in the region.
Task 2. Design Multiple Scenario-Based Modeling Frameworks for Prescribed Burning Activities
The contractor will work with CALFIRE/CARB to develop multiple scenario-based modeling frameworks for prescribed burning activities that would have occurred in the area affected by real-world wildfires. This framework should be well coordinated and coupled with Task 1. The scenario-based model can employ geospatial vegetative fuel data, fire behavior, fuel consumption, and emission models that have gone through literature reviews but must align well with the measurements that are being planned in Task 1 to ensure that the same PM and gas phase pollutants (e.g., criteria pollutants and air toxics) are being evaluated for comparative purposes. The scenario-based modeling shall be conducted post-measurements, but the contractors are encouraged to run additional modeling schemes to ensure that the framework developed with CALFIRE/CARB is realistic. Appropriate sensitivity analysis should be conducted at this time.
Task 3. Data Analysis of Ambient Observations and Corroboration with Scenario-Based Modeling
Assessment, analysis, and validation of the collected data captured by the mobile measurements and existing measurements from ground-based networks such as Purple Air, and regulatory networks shall provide a broader range of observations to evaluate the air quality impact of wildfire smoke on downwind population centers. Measured changes in pollutant levels, associated with different types of fires as experienced by different population centers, will be compared with predictions from scenario-based modeling for prescribed burning activities that would have been used to treat the area affected by real-world wildfires. The predictive modeling simulation should explore the implications of the near-field phase changes and subsequent local- to regional-scale chemical processing of these species. Conduct detailed comparative analysis with appropriate statistical confidence-building measures and sensitivity analyses.
Task 4. Communication and Coordination with CALFIRE/CARB to Improve Comparative Analysis
The products from Task 3 can be used to show how the framework can link tools that air quality regulators, forest managers, and public health experts are already using, but that is often not systematically applied to managed fires. For example, through a case study, the contractor will examine how smoke impacts from the intentional use of fire are likely to differ from an extreme wildfire targeted for suppression. The level and duration of smoke exposure are likely major determinants in what actions a community will take and are important factors to be considered in future studies. Hence the results of this project could support the availability and efficacy of various actions and interventions that can be employed at the individual and community levels to mitigate the public health impact of smoke exposure.
Task 5. Final Report and Sharing of Results
At the conclusion of the project, the investigators will provide a draft final report and final report to CARB that includes an equity implications section and plain language summary. The investigators will also work with CARB to hold a virtual or in-person seminar that communicates the research project and results to a broad public audience that includes people with both academic and non-academic backgrounds.
The investigators will provide all data, models, methodology, computer code (commented with documentation), and all data analysis results generated through the course of the project in electronic format. Additionally, the investigators are highly encouraged to prepare peer-reviewed journal articles as appropriate and will provide a preview of the manuscript to CARB for their comments prior to submission for review by a journal. Articles should be submitted to open-access journals. For more details regarding all required deliverables see IV. Deliverables.
The project proposal must include but is not limited to the following deliverables:
At the Beginning of the Contract
- All researchers must undergo cultural competency training (examples include implicit bias training, racial equity training, etc.). Training should be completed or scheduled within 30 days of contract execution.
- Participate in a kick-off meeting to give an overview of the project.
- Work with CARB to formulate deployment strategies, finalize data collection timelines, and instrument maintenance plans at monitoring sites.
- Work with CARB to formulate additional data collection strategies using CARB resources.
During the Active Contract Period
- Submit quarterly progress update reports to CARB. These reports will include plain-language summaries that can be posted publicly. A progress report template will be provided by CARB.
- Hold frequent consultation calls with CARB and key stakeholders to coordinate field measurements that support the objectives of this project.
- Hold conference calls with CARB to discuss the progress on a need basis.
Prior to Contract Close
- Package and submit the finalized datasets to CARB. The package must include all data, analyses, and analytical tools generated through the course of this project. The package will be handed over to CARB before the end of the contract.
- Include a plain language summary in the draft final report.
- Work with CARB to create plain-language outreach deliverables for the public summarizing results and impacts of the project (available in multiple languages).
- Include an equity implications section in the draft final report.
- The draft final report will be due 6 months before the end of the contract.
- Must include a plain language executive summary in the draft final report.
- Must include a plain-language equity implications section in the draft final report.
- Final Report.
- Virtual or in-person seminar that communicates the research project and results to a broad public audience that includes people with both academic and non-academic backgrounds.
- Peer-reviewed publications should be made publicly available (please budget for this expense). Submission-ready publications must be reviewed by CARB before submission.
Additional deliverables to be determined in consultation with CARB staff.
It is anticipated this project will be completed in 36 months from the start date. Cost shall not exceed $600,000.
Responsiveness to the Goals and Objectives Outlined in the Proposal Solicitation(15 points)
Proposers should demonstrate a clear understanding of the policy objectives and research needs that CARB seeks to address with this project and should convey their knowledge of the subject. The proposal should have a clear research question or testable hypothesis. The proposal should consider various aspects of the research need and identify or acknowledge biases. The proposal should spell out, in adequate detail, exactly what the Proposer proposes to do to satisfy the requirements of the Solicitation. The draft proposal must propose work that would satisfy the objective(s) stated in the Research Solicitation:
The objective of this project is to evaluate the air quality impacts of wildfires and prescribed burns on urban population centers downwind of fires. During real-world wildfire events, the contractor will collect ambient air quality data (including criteria pollutants and air toxics) at select population centers located downwind of the fire smoke, including such data pre- and/or post-fire, to capture air quality data when there is no influence of fire smoke. The size of the fires, meteorological influences, and location of the measurements relative to the wildfires will be closely evaluated and considered in data and modeling analyses. The contractor will then develop modeling scenarios, using the data collected and existing modeling tools, to predict air quality impacts of prescribed burning activities that would have been used to treat the vegetation fuels in the wildfire area, relative to wildfires, on downwind population centers. The contractor will analyze the measurement data and the modeling results to draw conclusions (with appropriate statistical confidence-building measures and sensitivity analyses) about the potential air quality benefits and trade-offs between prescribed burning and unplanned wildfires and wildfires modified by pre-fire fuels treatment that occur upwind of the population centers.
Policy Relevance/Benefits to the State (10 points)
Using data gathered from mobile air quality monitors and other sources, CARB will lead, with contributions from other agencies, entities, and academic researchers, an analysis of potential air quality/emissions impacts of prescribed fire smoke compared to wildfire smoke. Particular attention will be paid to impacts on climate vulnerable communities. The results would be used to make a good case to the public that a controlled fire is preferable to what they might be exposed to from unplanned fires. Does the proposal describe how the project will provide data, information, and/or products to help CARB accomplish its mission?
Relevant policies and programs: SB 1260: Prescribed Burn Reporting and Monitoring Program; AB 617: Community Air Protection Program at WUI area; SB 456 — (H) A science-based review and recommendations to guide and inform regional strategies on actions needed to improve the community fire resilience plans.
Previous Work (15 points)
Do the researchers have relevant experience in this area? Is the team composed of a multidisciplinary team of experts? Do they discuss how they will build upon previous relevant work that was funded by CARB, other state agencies, and federal agencies? 5 points will be reserved for project teams that meet at least one of the following criteria:
- The project team is multi-disciplinary
- The project team members come from various universities or include non-academic institutions or community-based organizations
- The project team includes one or more members, contributing significantly to the project (i.e. a principle investigator, co-principle investigator or co-investigator, contributing 25% or more of their time to the project) who have not worked with CARB in the past 5 years.
Technical Merit (25 points)
Describe the submission's technical strengths and/or weaknesses. Proposers should demonstrate the logic and feasibility of the methodology and technical approach to the project, spell out the sequence and relationships of major tasks, and explain methods for performing the actual work. The proposal should provide an explanation of how the proposed methods are robust and how results will be validated. Please factor in how well the draft proposal describes these areas:
- Is the proposed work scientifically defensible?
- Does contractors assemble a uniquely qualified team to advance the understanding of the linkages between fire and land management practices, and fire emissions and air quality impact analysis.
- Is this the correct measurement approach to characterize gas- and particle-phase compounds?
- Does the proposal provide a work-plan, experimental design, and method for analyzing results?
- Is the proposed work using appropriate technologies, models, and methods?
- Are these appropriate modeling scenarios being examined to predict air quality impacts of prescribed burning activities that would have been used to treat the vegetation fuels in the wildfire area, relative to wildfires, on downwind population centers.
- Does the proposed work address all the deliverables required in section “IV Deliverables”? If not, the proposal should not be considered for funding.
- The review team will be selecting only one draft proposal for development into a full proposal. If this draft proposal has potential, what areas or topics should be prioritized or better explained in the full proposal?
Level and Quality of Effort to be Provided (15 points)
Does the proposal allocate time and resources in such a way that the objectives of the study will be met? Is supervision and oversight adequate for ensuring that the project will remain on schedule? Is the distribution of workload appropriate for activities such as research, evaluation and analysis, data reduction, computer simulation, report preparation, meetings, and travel?
Cost Effectiveness (20 points)
Does the cost seem appropriate for the proposed work? Does the proposed work seem feasible within the requested budget? Projects that provide co-funding should be evaluated more favorably.