Air quality impacts of the October 2003 Southern California wildfires



[1] In Southern California, dry summers followed by hot and dry westerly wind conditions contribute to the region's autumn fire season. In late October 2003, 13 large Southern California wildfires burned more than 750,000 acres of land, destroyed over 3500 structures, and displaced approximately 100,000 people. The fire episode was declared the deadliest and most devastating in more than a decade, and local media advised individuals to stay indoors to avoid exposure to excessive levels of PM, CO, VOCs, and ozone caused by the wildfires. This study examines the actual impact of these wildfires on air quality in urban Los Angeles (LA) using “opportunistic” data from other air pollution studies being conducted at the time of the fires. Measurements of pollutant gases (CO, NOx, and ozone), particulate matter (PM), particle number (PN) concentrations, and particle size distributions at several sampling locations in the LA basin before, during, and after the fire episode are presented. In general, the wildfires caused the greatest increases in PM10 levels (a factor of 3–4) and lesser increases in CO, NO, and PN (a factor of up to 2). NO2 levels remained essentially unchanged, and ozone concentrations dropped during the fire episode. Particle size distributions of air sampled downwind of the fires showed number modes at diameters between 100 and 200 nm, significantly larger than that of typical urban air. The particles in this size range were shown to effectively penetrate indoors, raising questions about the effectiveness of staying indoors to avoid exposure to wildfire emissions.