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At 2 p.m. Thursday, after Bob Kroutil of Los Alamos National Laboratory's Bioscience Division got a call for help, the ASPECT plane deployed to the wildfires of Southern California.
ASPECT (Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology), is a one-of-a-kind emergency response aircraft operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and supported by LANL.
It's the nation's only 24/7 emergency response aircraft with chemical plume mapping capability. It uses infrared technology to visualize invisible, odorless chemicals in the air.
During a telephone interview late Friday from Long Beach, Kroutil explained that the aircraft is providing chemical analysis support to the EPA, Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.
"We are looking for potential chemical vapors that might be emanating from structure fires," Kroutil said. "We are supporting the EPA and providing them with data analysis and assessment of chemical data and they are forwarding it to the JFO (Joint Field Operations) in Pasadena, which is operated by FEMA.
ASPECT detectors can determine the chemical composition of a plume and its level of concentration from a distance, alerting emergency crews on the ground to potential hazards.
"The air quality in this general area looks pretty good," Kroutil said. "It looks like the fires on the north side of Los Angeles are out. The fires down south near San Diego are not completely contained."
Kroutil said EPA personnel flew the plane into California. It is now traveling at about 3,000 feet about the ground, mapping any potential chemical hazards.
All data and photos collected are going to a central repository at LANL, he said. Various agencies from around the country will be able to extract the data they need.
ASPECT will remain on duty in Southern California from a few days up to two weeks, Kroutil said, adding that the aircraft has responded 62 times to incidents and disasters since the program began in September 2001.