Analyzing the Air Pollution Spike Caused by the Thomas Fire

Less than two months after the most destructive wildfire in the history of California the state is fighting yet another massive blaze in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. October’s fire in Northern California burned over 200,000 acres, destroyed nearly 6,000 structures, and claimed the lives of at least 42 people. The ongoing Thomas Fire north of Los Angeles has already burned across 270,000 acres and is causing hazardous air pollution in the region.

Even though wildfires are a normal phenomenon in California, the past few months have broken almost every previous record. According to Daniel Swain, a climate scientist from UCLA, it was more than the multi-year drought, high winds, and triple-digit temperatures that sparked the massive wildfires. The recent rainy winter left an extra-thick carpet of grass and brush that then dried over the record-hot summer providing perfect conditions for the fires.

In light of these dire events in California, we’ve added a high-quality global air pollution dataset to the Planet OS Datahub that provides a 5-day air quality forecast.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service uses a comprehensive global monitoring and forecasting system that estimates the state of the atmosphere on a daily basis, combining information from models and observations, to provide a daily 5-day global surface forecast.

The Planet OS Datahub provides 28 different variables from the CAMS Air Quality Forecast dataset. I’ve used PM2.5 in my analysis of the Thomas Fire as these particles, often described as the fine particles, are up to 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. These tiny particles are small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs, making them very dangerous to people’s health.

CAMS Air Quality Forecast showing high concentrations of PM2.5 being emitted by the Thomas Fire.

Here are some of the things I discovered:

  • From the GIF above you can see that the polluted air from the Thomas Fire is spreading across California as well as the Pacific Ocean and nearby states.
  • The air pollution from the wildfire has exceeded a record 5,000 µg/m3 which is 16 times as high as the current pollution in New Delhi, India, one of the most contaminated cities in the world. The hourly norm is actually 25 µg/m3.
  • When checking the difference in air pollution levels during the day and night, we discovered that the pollution is significantly higher during the night.
  • The forecast showed that the pollution levels will continue to be high through December the 20th. After that the current forecast has pollution levels returning to normal levels, however this forecast could easily change depending on how conditions and ongoing efforts to extinguishing the fire evolve.

For more examples of how you can use the Planet OS Datahub API to work with air quality data, check out my Jupyter notebook on GitHub.


The Planet OS Datahub provides free access to high-quality earth science data, and is routinely updated with new datasets. If you’d like to be notified when new data becomes available, follow Planet OS on Medium or subscribe to our email newsletter to receive future updates in your inbox.