Differences in the Estimation of Wildfire-Associated Air Pollution by Satellite Mapping of Smoke Plumes and Ground-Level Monitoring

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Nov 5;17(21):8164. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17218164.


Wildfires, which are becoming more frequent and intense in many countries, pose serious threats to human health. To determine health impacts and provide public health messaging, satellite-based smoke plume data are sometimes used as a proxy for directly measured particulate matter levels. We collected data on particulate matter <2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5) concentration from 16 ground-level monitoring stations in the San Francisco Bay Area and smoke plume density from satellite imagery for the 2017-2018 California wildfire seasons. We tested for trends and calculated bootstrapped differences in the median PM2.5 concentrations by plume density category on a 0-3 scale. The median PM2.5 concentrations for categories 0, 1, 2, and 3 were 16, 22, 25, and 63 μg/m3, respectively, and there was much variability in PM2.5 concentrations within each category. A case study of the Camp Fire illustrates that in San Francisco, PM2.5 concentrations reached their maximum many days after the peak for plume density scores. We found that air pollution characterization by satellite imagery did not precisely align with ground-level PM2.5 concentrations. Public health practitioners should recognize the need to combine multiple sources of data regarding smoke patterns when developing public guidance to limit the health effects of wildfire smoke.

Keywords: air pollution; environmental epidemiology; environmental health; exposure assessment; wildfires.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / analysis*
  • Air Pollution / analysis
  • Air Pollution / statistics & numerical data*
  • Environmental Monitoring*
  • Humans
  • Particulate Matter / analysis
  • San Francisco
  • Smoke / analysis
  • Spacecraft
  • Wildfires*


  • Air Pollutants
  • Particulate Matter
  • Smoke