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A Cal Poly study is revealing how smoke from fires across California could have a direct impact on people in San Luis Obispo.

Led by chemistry professor Matthew Zoerb and three students, the team is looking into how California wildfires are affecting atmospheric aerosol particle composition in the Central Coast.

The team began researching Summer 2016 with the objective of gathering data that looks at annual and seasonal changes in particle composition. Since then, the study shifted to focus on wildfires.

“When there’s a large scale regional wildfire, it has a big impact on our samples,” Zoerb said. “The wildfire portion of our research evolved out of this.”

The overall focus of the research group centered on the three major wildfires that burned between July and September of 2018: the Ferguson Fire, the Mendocino-Complex Fire and the Carr Fire.

The study recently shifted its focus once more to understand how the Camp Fire in Butte County, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, might affect air particles in San Luis Obispo.

Different materials burn depending on the fire and affect the composition of the smoke differently. According to Zoerb, the study group will give extra attention to recent samples collected during the Camp Fire because more than 12,000 structures burned, changing the fuel type.

According to Zoerb, the study’s role is to look at how many particles there are, how large they are, look at their chemical composition and finally, understand how these chemical compounds will interact with light. In order to do so, they have increased the number of instruments used to sample this data.

“We’re not directly looking at the direct biological connection, but the information we’re getting is relevant to health and climate interactions,” Zoerb said.

The research team increased their sampling frequency with large fires in order to gather as much data as possible.

“It’s still a work in progress, but we’re getting some pretty interesting results and we’re interested to see where it goes,” Zoerb said.

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