Nevada receives $550,000 to enhance wildfire smoke air quality monitoring technologies, public messaging in rural communities

Nevada receives $550,000 to enhance wildfire smoke air quality monitoring technologies, public messaging in rural communities

Carson City, NV – The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) and Desert Research Institute (DRI) are excited to announce a new partnership program that will expand wildfire smoke air quality monitoring infrastructure and public information resources for rural communities across the state. Funded by a $550,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the new Nevada rural air quality monitoring and messaging program includes installation of approximately 60 smart technology air quality sensors that measure fine particle pollution – the major harmful pollutant in smoke – and additional communications tools to help rural Nevada families near the front lines better understand their risks from wildfire smoke and the steps they can take to protect their health.

“The growing impacts of climate change are being felt in all corners of Nevada, with record-breaking temperatures and extreme drought fueling catastrophic wildfires across the west,” said NDEP Administrator Greg Lovato. “In recent years, smoke pollution from increasingly frequent, intense, and widespread wildfires have led to some of the worst air quality conditions in Nevada’s history, and these trends are expected to continue. Given these concerns, over the past three years, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection has moved quickly to expand and enhance our air quality monitoring network to rural communities throughout the state with new Purple Air sensors deployed in Elko, Spring Creek, Pershing County, Mineral County, and Storey County. The new air quality partnership program builds on this progress bringing us even closer to our goal of providing all Nevadans, in every community, with timely access to air quality information. I thank EPA and DRI for their active collaboration and support as we work together to harness the power of data and technology to bring localized air quality information to the doorsteps of rural Nevada communities.”

This program applies various methods of air quality monitoring and communications including:

  • Evaluating the performance of selected portable air quality sensors in the DRI combustion facility and in three rural NV counties
  • Identifying gaps in public knowledge of wildfire smoke risk in these counties
  • Developing educational materials for emergency managers to use to close the identified gaps

These methods will be continuously monitored and tailored based on the unique needs of the individual communities.

“We are excited to work collaboratively with NDEP and rural county emergency managers to expand the air quality monitoring network in Nevada and to develop custom messaging materials for communities frequently impacted by wildfire smoke,” said DRI Assistant Research Professor Kristin VanderMolen. “Together, this will enable emergency managers to make important safety decisions based on accurate, real-time, local-level air quality data, and to ensure that those communities are well informed about potential health risks and how to mitigate them.”

“Wildfire smoke is a significant threat to public health during fire season,” said Deborah Jordan, EPA’s Acting Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest office.   “This research on air quality sensors and purifiers will improve approaches for evaluating wildfire smoke and mitigating the associated health risks in northern Nevada.”

According to the 2020 State Climate Strategy Survey, Nevadans ranked wildfire, drought, and air quality as the top concerns facing the state. By implementing these measures, NDEP and DRI expect to help address these concerns and see a healthier, safer rural Nevada that is better equipped with communications resources needed to successfully minimize the health risks of wildfire smoke.

These improvements are also aligned with the EPA Strategic Plan goal to connect state research needs with EPA priorities. Specifically, the development and assessment of the effectiveness of health risk communication strategies in supporting actions to reduce wildland fire smoke exposure among at-risk and harder-to-reach populations.

For more information about air quality in Nevada, visit


The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ mission is to protect, manage, and enhance Nevada’s natural, cultural, and recreational resources. This mission is accomplished by leading efforts to address the impacts of climate change and fostering partnerships that advance innovative solutions and strategies to protect natural resources for the benefit of all Nevadans. Established in 1957, the Department includes 11 divisions and programs (Environmental Protection, Forestry, Outdoor Recreation, State Parks, State Lands, Water Resources, Historic Preservation, Conservation Districts, Natural Heritage, Sagebrush Ecosystem, and Off-Highway Vehicles) and 11 boards and commissions.

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit

Rosen Applauds Over $500,000 Awarded to Desert Research Institute to Mitigate Risk of Wildfire Smoke in Rural Communities


WASHINGTON, D.C. –U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) released the following statement applauding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for awarding a grant totaling $544,763 to the Desert Research Institute (DRI) for development, research, implementation, and evaluation of air quality sensors and purifiers to mitigate wildfire smoke risks in northern Nevada.

“In 2020, nearly 60,000 wildfires burned more than 10.3 million acres across the United States. Unfortunately, the current drought and historic temperatures have a crippling effect on western states like Nevada, creating an ideal environment for the spread of wildfires,” said Senator Rosen. “I am glad that the EPA has recognized the smoke hazard that accompanies these increased wildfires, impacting the air quality in rural communities, and putting Nevadans’ health at risk. With this grant, DRI can provide air quality monitors for rural communities and develop educational materials on wildfire smoke risk. Today’s announcement builds upon bipartisan efforts in the Senate to provide Nevadans with the most up-to-date safety measures and resources to protect them from wildfires.”

BACKGROUND: The goal of the project is to increase wildfire smoke risk mitigation in northern Nevada rural communities through the development, implementation, and evaluation of stakeholder-driven monitoring and messaging. Researchers will evaluate the performance of selected portable air quality sensors and place them in three rural Nevada counties to monitor air quality; develop education materials to reduce knowledge gaps in wildfire smoke risk among emergency managers and the public; and evaluate the effectiveness of in air quality monitoring and messaging to mitigate wildfire smoke risk.

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

AUG 25, 2020

Population Heath

Above: Aerial view of California’s Imperial Valley, where daytime temperatures during summer months can reach as high as 120 degrees. Credit: Thomas Barrat/

Featured research by DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, Ben Hatchett, Erick Bandala, and Tamara Wall


In July and August, daytime temperatures along parts of the US-Mexico border can reach as high as 120 degrees – more than 20 degrees above normal human body temperature. For agricultural workers and others who live and work in the region, exposure to these extreme high temperatures can result in serious health impacts including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heat-related death.

Although the National Weather Service and public health organizations issue heat warnings to communicate risk during extreme heat events, heat-related illness and death are still common among vulnerable populations. Now, a group of DRI scientists led by Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences, is trying to figure out why.

“With the continued increase in episodes of extreme heat and heat waves, there has been an increase in warning messaging programs, yet there continue to be high numbers of heat-related illness and death in communities along the US-Mexico border,” VanderMolen said. “So, there’s this question – if agencies are doing all of this messaging, and people are still getting sick and even dying, then what’s going on?”

An agricultural field in California’s Imperial Valley

An agricultural field in California’s Imperial Valley, where DRI researchers are exploring questions about heat messaging and vulnerability in populations of agricultural workers and others who are vulnerable to heat-related illness and death. 

Credit: Winthrop Brookhouse/

Assessing heat messaging: An interdisciplinary approach


In 2018, VanderMolen and colleagues Ben Hatchett, Ph.D., Erick Bandala, Ph.D., and Tamara Wall, Ph.D. received funding from NOAA’s International Research and Applications Project (IRAP) to explore questions about heat messaging and vulnerability in two pairs of US-Mexico border cities, San Diego-Tijuana and Calexico-Mexicali. Collectively these areas form the boundaries of the Cali-Baja Bi-national Megaregion. This unique transboundary location integrates the economies of the United States and Mexico, exporting approximately $24.3 billion worth of goods and services each year.

With expertise in the areas of anthropology, meteorology, climatology, and population health, this interdisciplinary team of researchers is now working on this problem from several angles. They are using climate data to characterize and assess past heat extremes as well as using long-range weather forecasts and climate projections to help improve the ability to put out advance messaging about future heat waves. They are working to identify and map populations that are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat and are collaborating with local agencies to understand why people may or may not take protective action during heat waves.

From initial conversations with local civic organizations and public health agencies, the team has learned that the reasons people may not be following heat warnings are complex. Recommended actions such as “stay indoors and seek air-conditioned buildings,” or “take longer and more frequent breaks,” may not be realistic for agricultural workers or others who don’t have access to air-conditioned spaces. There can even be negative consequences for those who choose to seek medical help.

“A big piece of the story that we’ve heard from some of the independent groups that work with agricultural workers in the region is that if someone gets sick and doesn’t show up for work, they can lose their job,” Hatchett explained. “If they go to the hospital and somebody sees them or hears about it, they can lose their job. There are some really big issues related to people not feeling okay with trying to get the help they need.”

“There is evidence to suggest that cases of heat-related illness and death are underreported, probably severely underreported,” VanderMolen added. “The demographics of the individuals for documented cases don’t reflect the population demographics overall. We know that there are a lot of inequalities in that area that may get in the way of people reporting illness.”

A map of summer maximum near-surface temperatures in Imperial Valley, CA

A map of summer maximum near-surface temperatures over the 30-year period from 1981–2010 shows that Imperial Valley (at the border between Mexico and the southeastern corner of California) is the hottest place in in North America, with an average maximum temperature from June to August of 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). Data is from the North American Regional Reanalysis.

Credit: Ben Hatchett/DRI

COVID-19 complications and next steps


Originally, VanderMolen was planning to travel to the US-Mexico border this summer to do one-on-one interviews with members of vulnerable populations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unforeseen complications.

Imperial County has been hit very hard by COVID-19, compounding the effects of extreme heat for the vulnerable populations that VanderMolen and her team hope to work with. The pandemic has also made it unfeasible to travel to the region to do face-to-face interviews, and has created challenges in coordinating with local agencies that are now overwhelmed in their efforts to address COVID-19.

“It’s a really interesting place and time to do this work because there are questions about what it means to be on stay-at-home orders and limited travel orders when it’s 114 degrees outside and you don’t have reliable air conditioning or its cost is prohibitive,” VanderMolen said. “At the same time, because they’re so overwhelmed right now with caseload, most folks in the area can’t really afford to address issues beyond COVID-19.”

As the research team works to navigate a path forward that is safe for both the interviewers and interviewees, they remain committed to developing information that will help vulnerable populations along the border.

“I hope that the information we provide is something decision-makers can use to make the right decision or create legislation that can help protect workers in the field, or at least call attention to the kind of inequalities and risk that the people there are being exposed to,” Bandala said. “Or, if we can produce information to change the mindset of the people to start thinking of themselves as a population at risk, and put more attention on the heat warnings, that will suffice for me to feel satisfied with the results of our research.”

The US-Mexico border is just one of many places around the globe where heat-related illness is a problem, added Hatchett – and many of those places happen to be where a lot of our food is grown or where important industries are located.

“I think this is a somewhat ubiquitous problem around the planet. We have these really important places that are susceptible to environmental extremes and these people that we rely on to have these regions be productive in terms of agriculture or industry. Unfortunately, those people are often the most susceptible and underserved populations to these compound environmental hazards,” Hatchett said. “It’s so easy to forget them, but one of the goals of this project is really to bring to light the importance of aiming much-needed resources at trying to help those populations and those places.”

Additional information

For more information on the members of this DRI research team, please visit: 

This research was supported by NOAA’s International Research and Applications Project (IRAP).

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

The DRI Foundation has just awarded the next round of seed grants to six teams of researchers through the Innovation Research Program (IRP). The IRP provides the start-up funding DRI scientists need to test new ideas and produce initial data, which will help them build the scientific case for future research projects.

The 2020 Innovation Research Project winners were chosen through a competitive selection process and reviewed by a committee comprised of previous IRP recipients and DRI’s Vice President for Research. The selected projects demonstrate creative, innovative research or technological development that advances DRI’s mission.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Advancing the science behind canine odor detection evidence in criminal trials
Mary Cablk, Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khlystov

Cadaver dogs are often called on to detect the odors of human remains at a crime scene, and the evidence they find—the odor left behind from a body on a killer’s clothing, for example—is treated as hard scientific fact in criminal trials. However, there are currently no physical or chemical forensic methods to verify this kind of evidence. In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Mary Cablk and her team are employing a scientific approach to compare the detection of residual odors by dogs and laboratory instrumentation. This research will bolster the scientific foundation for canine evidence used in homicide cases and position DRI to secure future funding for projects investigating a wider span of canine evidence, such as contraband.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Supporting climate adaptation for specialty crop farmers
Kristin VanderMolen 

Climate change impacts like flooding and drought threaten the production of specialty crops like fruits, nuts, and vegetables in California, a state that grows more than half of these crops nationwide. DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, PhD, and partners at the Climate Science Alliance at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are investigating how farmers are adapting to these challenges in order to identify how climate research can best support them. This research lays the groundwork for field studies to test and verify the effectiveness of farmers’ adaptation strategies and the development of climate information products to support farmers into the future. Additionally, this project builds relationships between DRI and critical partners, like the Climate Science Alliance and University of California Cooperative Extension.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

Enhancing soil moisture data to improve hydrologic modeling
Ming Liu

Soil moisture is a critical variable when it comes to understanding processes like evapotranspiration, the transfer of water from land surfaces and plants into the atmosphere. Most hydrologic models rely on soil moisture data from satellite remote sensing, but this data lacks ground truthing, especially in remote arid places. In collaboration with Myriota, an Internet of Things (IoT) nanosatellite startup, DRI’s Ming Liu, PhD, is developing sensor stations by integrating Myriota’s nanosatellite transceiver with custom-made universal dataloggers. The sensor stations will be deployed across Nevada to collect soil moisture readings from the field. This project aims to improve the data used in hydrologic models and build the foundation for broader sensor deployment for environmental research in arid lands.

Researchers sample snow

Researchers sample snow for a previous research project. Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

Tracing the history of atmospheric river events to improve water resource management in the Western U.S.
Joe McConnell, Nathan Chellman, Christine Albano

Atmospheric rivers carry significant amounts of water vapor from the tropics to the Western United States, providing 30-40% of the total precipitation during a typical winter season. However, these rivers in the sky can also result in extreme weather like flooding and wind storms, which pose risks to infrastructure and human safety. Despite the significant impacts of atmospheric rivers, little is known about how their frequency and intensity has changed over the past several centuries. Using chemical analysis in DRI’s state-of-the-art Ice Core Laboratory, Joe McConnell, PhD, and his team are working to identify isotopic signatures that differentiate snow produced by atmospheric rivers from that produced by other storms. If successful, researchers will be able to leverage this work in future projects to develop a history of atmospheric rivers over the last several hundred years. Such a record will be valuable for informing water resource management and hazard mitigation, especially as the climate continues to warm and change.

A cannabis growing facility

A cannabis growing facility, part of a previous DRI air quality study. Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

Evaluating health risks from cannabis smoking and vaping
David Campbell

The legalization of cannabis products for both medical and recreational use in many states, including Nevada, has resulted in widespread commercial production of non-tobacco smoking and vaping products. However, this growth hasn’t been accompanied by research into the health effects from use of those products—in fact, there has been virtually no analysis of the many chemical compounds that are inhaled by users when smoking or vaping cannabis, due in part to federal research restrictions. Dr. David Campbell is developing a portable sampling system to collect the smoke or vapor for laboratory analysis, and it will be tested with cigarettes made from legal hemp, which is identical to marijuana except for the lower THC content. This research will bolster what we know about the health risks associated with cannabis use and develop intellectual property DRI researchers can leverage in future projects.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast,

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast, where Gillies and colleagues have previously conducted research on dust and wind erosion.

Modeling and Analysis of Fluid Flow Interactions with Porous/Permeable 3-Dimensional Forms
Jack Gillies, Eden Furtak-Cole

Dust emissions, particularly from arid regions, directly impact air quality, human health, agricultural production, and the planet’s climate. Windy conditions drive the formation of dust through erosion, and while vegetation and structures like fencing are known to mitigate wind erosion and dust emissions, researchers have been unable to quantify their actual impact in large scale models. Dr. Jack Gillies and his team are working to incorporate the erosion mitigation impact of vegetation and engineered control structures into wind erosion models. These models will provide a cost-effective, efficient way to develop dust control strategies and improve air quality. This work will also position DRI as a leader in the ability to evaluate dust emissions and lay the foundation for future projects, particularly as problems like drought and desertification become more pronounced under a warming climate.

Meet Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D.

Meet Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D.

Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor and social scientist with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. She grew up in northern California, and holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Humboldt State University, a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador, and a Ph.D. in environmental anthropology from the University of Georgia. Kristin has been a member of the DRI community since 2016, when she came to DRI for a postdoctoral position. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors – road cycling, hiking, and snowshoeing in the Sierras.


DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

KV: I see my job in two parts. One is that I do purely social sciences research. For example, right now I’m working with the National Park Service at Pipe Spring National Monument in northern Arizona to do a series of oral history interviews with tribal communities and the descendants of early pioneers. Together, those groups have inhabited the area surrounding the monument for a very long time, and NPS wants to build out its oral history archives with their knowledge, experience, and stories. They’ll use that information to help inform the park’s interpretation and management.

The other main area that I work in is to provide social science support to physical scientists such as the climatologists in DRI’s Western Regional Climate Center when their work applies to land and natural resource management. On these projects, I’m often liaising between the researchers and management professionals. I’m also evaluating their research processes or products to help ensure that the results are useful to management.


DRI: What is the importance or value of integrating social science work with other types of scientific research? What can a social scientist bring to the table?

KV: The social sciences have a lot to offer theoretically and methodologically, as well as a different perspective. They also have a lot to offer in practical application. For example, over the last several years, there has been a proliferation of climate-related decision support tools intended for use in land and natural resource management, but in many cases, researchers have produced those tools without end-user feedback. When I first came to DRI as a postdoc, I worked on a project with Tamara Wall where we conducted a multi-stage or “developmental” evaluation of a web interface that provides managers access to climate data and analysis tools. The results emphasized the need to involve end-users from the start and for evaluation to be embedded throughout the development of tools like this. So, as social scientists, we can make evaluation a part of the research process to help ensure that research products are useful to the intended users.


DRI: We understand that you’re involved with an interesting project related to heat related illnesses. Can you tell us about that?

KV: It’s a project with colleagues here at DRI that looks at the messaging about the health impacts of extreme heat and heat waves on vulnerable populations in southern California and northwestern Mexico. The impacts of extreme heat and heat waves on human health can be significant, but heat consistently ranks of little concern to the public in comparison to other climate-related hazards.

So this is an interdisciplinary project, and we’re using a “vulnerability mapping” approach that combines past and projected trends in extreme heat and heat waves with data on cases of heat-related illness and heat-related deaths to identify vulnerable populations in those areas. We’re then doing focus groups with members of those populations to evaluate current heat warning messaging, like from the National Weather Service and public health entities in the U.S. and Mexico. Specifically, we are interested in understanding what knowledge those populations have about extreme heat and heat waves and the impacts to human health, whether they receive messaging, whether they do or do not take recommended protective actions and why. We’re doing this in the interest of helping those messaging agencies to increase the effectiveness of their communications by better targeting them both geographically and socioculturally.


DRI: How did you become interested in this line of work?

KV: I happened upon a notice for a postdoc position within the Western Regional Climate Center where they were looking for someone with a social science background to work in an applied interdisciplinary setting on land and natural resource management issues. I had already been working in such a setting in agricultural research and knew that I liked it, because as much as I love anthropology, I also enjoy learning about other disciplines and what other people do. So, there was a lot of appeal for me in the opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary setting on purposeful research—research focused on environmental problem solving, or now in the case of the heat-health project, on supporting activities to help safeguard human health.