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UW scientists track Chemtool fire pollution, note firefighting efforts reducing further pollution risks

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UPDATE (WKOW) -- As firefighters continue to work against the Chemtool fire, meteorologists no longer predict pollution risks norhth of dane county.

According to scientists with UW-Madison's Space Science and Engineering Center, the smoke plumes billowing from the fire no longer appear on the most recent forecast models.

They currently believe there is no threat to air quality this far north, however they will continue to monitor the situation.

MADISON (WKOW) -- Scientists at UW-Madison started tracking the Chemtool fire on their instruments almost immediately after it started burning, and they've used that information to map models which show air pollution from the fire could travel significantly north if the winds change as predicted.

Records obtained by WREX-TV show the plant contained zinc, sulfuric acid, lead and more -- which scientists say contributed to how thick and black the smoke from the fire is.

"I'm actually quite amazed at the magnitude and the extent of the smoke plume coming from this fire," said Brad Pierce, director of UW-Madison's Space Science and Engineering Center.

Pierce and his colleagues have been tracking the plant burning through instruments also used to track wildfires.

"It's not as big as a Western wildfire in terms of area," Pierce said. "But the extent of the plume is quite significant."

With these tools, scientists can make predictions.

By Thursday morning, winds are expected to change direction from west to north, which could blow pollution from the Chemtool fire north of Dane County, close to Columbia, Dodge and potentially Sauk counties.

"The impact of that depends very much on whether the plume stays aloft or whether it's able to mix down into the boundary layer and impact surface concentrations," Pierce said.

As of Tuesday night, there's still an evacuation order one mile around the plant. People within three miles are advised to wear a mask.

Pierce says as best they can tell, when the winds shift, the pollution should stay high up in the atmosphere.

"They don't see any enhancement downwind at the surface," he said. "That's good from an exposure perspective."

But those are forecasts, and Pierce says you should pay close attention to whatever the EPA, DNR, NWS or other agencies advise in the coming days.

"If the plume does turn towards the north, I certainly will tell my family to stay inside," Pierce said.

He says the concentration of that pollution will be much lower the farther you get from the fire. If the prediction holds, Pierce says it could be similar to any other air quality alert, which would mean people with breathing issues like asthma would probably want to stay to stay indoors.

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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