Articles | Volume 13, issue 14
Research article
30 Jul 2013
Research article |  | 30 Jul 2013

Combustion efficiency and emission factors for wildfire-season fires in mixed conifer forests of the northern Rocky Mountains, US

S. P. Urbanski

Abstract. In the US, wildfires and prescribed burning present significant challenges to air regulatory agencies attempting to achieve and maintain compliance with air quality regulations. Fire emission factors (EF) are essential input for the emission models used to develop wildland fire emission inventories. Most previous studies quantifying wildland fire EF of temperate ecosystems have focused on emissions from prescribed burning conducted outside of the wildfire season. Little information is available on EF for wildfires in temperate forests of the conterminous US. The goal of this work is to provide information on emissions from wildfire-season forest fires in the northern Rocky Mountains, US. In August 2011, we deployed airborne chemistry instruments and sampled emissions over eight days from three wildfires and a prescribed fire that occurred in mixed conifer forests of the northern Rocky Mountains. We measured the combustion efficiency, quantified as the modified combustion efficiency (MCE), and EF for CO2, CO, and CH4. Our study average values for MCE, EFCO2, EFCO, and EFCH4 were 0.883, 1596 g kg−1, 135 g kg−1, 7.30 g kg−1, respectively. Compared with previous field studies of prescribed fires in temperate forests, the fires sampled in our study had significantly lower MCE and EFCO2 and significantly higher EFCO and EFCH4. The fires sampled in this study burned in areas reported to have moderate to heavy components of standing dead trees and down dead wood due to insect activity and previous fire, but fuel consumption data was not available. However, an analysis of MCE and fuel consumption data from 18 prescribed fires reported in the literature indicates that the availability of coarse fuels and conditions favorable for the combustion of these fuels favors low MCE fires. This analysis suggests that fuel composition was an important factor contributing to the low MCE of the fires measured in this study. This study only measured EF for CO2, CO, and CH4; however, we used our study average MCE to provide rough estimates of wildfire-season EF for PM2.5 and four non-methane organic compounds (NMOC) using MCE and EF data reported in the literature. This analysis suggests the EFPM2.5 for wildfires that occur in forests of the northern Rocky Mountains may be significantly larger than those reported for temperate forests in the literature and that used in a recent national emission inventory. If the MCE of the fires sampled in this work are representative of the combustion characteristics of wildfire-season fires in similar forest types across the western US then the use of EF based on prescribed fires may result in an underestimate of wildfire PM2.5 and NMOC emissions. Given the magnitude of biomass consumed by western US wildfires, this may have important implications for the forecasting and management of regional air quality.

Final-revised paper