Credit: Matthew Zoerb | Courtesy

Chemistry professor Matthew Zoerb and a group of undergraduate students are conducting research to help people better understand the effects wildfires have on health and the environment.

In the past few years, California has seen the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history, including the Camp Fire in 2018 and the Kincade Fire last October. Zoerb and his students are researching the health and environmental impact following wildfires.

Zoerb said he was inspired to begin his research after the Soberanes Fire that burned the Big Sur Coast in 2016.

“We are looking at different fuel sources such as forests or wood from homes and the chemistry of those particles and how the physical and chemical transformations evolve over time,” Zoerb said

When something burns, those particles are released into the air and will drift hundreds of miles from their starting point, according to Zoerb. By taking air samples from Cal Poly’s campus and the Cal Poly Pier, located in Avila Beach, Zoerb and his students saw the particles that people were breathing as well as the concentrations of those particles depending on the proximity of the wildfires. 

Zoerb and his team gathered many samples downwind from Northern California fires because 2019 had less local fires than previous years. According to Zoerb, San Luis Obispo generally has good air quality which allows from him and his team to see every trace emission that makes it to the area.

Zoerb and his team can then see how much the wildfire particles are diluted and what the impact is. These samples show how much the wildfire particles remain in the air. This helps the team identify types of fires and decipher the general location where the fires started. With these samples, the team began to understand the amount of time these particles remain in the air.

Seth Bush, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department, said Zoerb’s work is an important milestone.  

“The ability to accurately measure microscopic, trace particles generated in wildfires across the state is interesting from a scientific standpoint on its own,” Bush said. “However, the fact that they can use this tool and the data they collect to address complex real world problems amplifies the importance of their work beyond the academic community.”

The College of Science and Mathematics Dean Dean E. Wendt said Zoerb and the team of students is relevant to the state as a whole.

“The work of [Zoerb] is a great example of Cal Poly research at it’s best — engaging students, focusing on problems that are meaningful to California, and contributing basic knowledge to a scholarly discipline,” Wendt said. 

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