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Maps Help Coordinate Resources During the Nation's Wildfire Crisis

Author: John Steffenson, Esri Director of Natural Resources

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-06-27
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On June 21, 2016, NBC Los Angeles twittered this image of the San Gabriel Complex, a mix of two separate fires, the Reservoir Fire and the Fish Fire, both of which started on June 20th in the San Gabriel mountains above Los Angeles. The rapid spread of the fires challenged local and mutual aid responders who came from as far as Northern California to assist. Maps were essential to manage incident potential, define exposures in the fire’s path, and keep track of resources.
Image via NBCLosAngeles.

In the middle of June, 2016, a deadly heat wave settled over the entire Southwest creating rife conditions for wildfire. In just one day, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported 15 uncontained large fires burning simultaneously across Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and California. During a busy western fire season it’s not uncommon for firefighting resources to be stretched thin due to increasing fire activity.  When there is a high demand for wildland firefighting resources, local and geographic area dispatch centers will send those requests up to the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) in Boise, Idaho, which locates and mobilizes additional resources.

Left: Erskine Fire in California's Kern County, on June 24, 2016. Photo via Cal Fire PIO twitter page

Using Esri GIS platform technology, NICC can handle up to 50 major incidents simultaneously. It creates sophisticated fire maps that become the focal points of operational intelligence. By drawing on a wide range of authoritative open data, GIS creates a continually updated view of multiple situations.

NICC works with fire leadership from eight different federal and state agencies to prioritize and allocate resources when there are critical shortages of national resources such as hot shot crews, air tankers, or incident management teams. The primary objective is to save life and property, therefore, low-risk fires may receive minimal or no response. By contrast, the Reservoir and Fish fires near Los Angeles threatened residential areas and, thus, had a higher priority than the concurrent Wildcat fire in Arizona. The most experienced incident command teams are assigned to fires that threaten lives and property.

On June 24, 2016, a GIS map shows the status of the Fish fire in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles and its threat to neighborhoods. 

Situational awareness is central to fighting wildfires. NICC uses NIFC’s Enterprise Geospatial Portal (Fire EGP), which is a gateway to geospatial information for an entire range of wildfire activities. Esri developed situational awareness tools that work with Fire EGP to give emergency managers a wide understanding of an incident. They create a common operational picture while the disaster is unfolding and support key management activities. By using situation analysis tools with Fire EGP data, incident commanders can see water sources, airfields, aircraft, crews, bulldozers, and other essential resources. 

Right: The Erskine Fire has burned more than 43,000 acres near the Lake Isabella area, claiming multiple lives, requiring evacuations of residents, destroying 220 structures and threatening an additional 2,500 structures. As of June 24th, the fire was at 40% containment, with are currently over 1,700 men and women fighting the blaze. via Cal OES web page

Each day, during the peak of fire season, potentially thousands of users access Fire EGP information by using NIFC’s easy-to-use Fire Globe app. Fire Globe accesses data layers in the large intelligence portal via a web browser. It creates 2D and 3D visualizations so that an incident commander can readily understand a fire’s topography and more accurately predict its spread. The app shows the conditions in which line crews are working. Fire Globe also accesses historical fire data and predictive fire weather information.

The Fish fire threatens an elementary school in Duarte, California.

“Seeing data layers about aspect, wind direction, and soil types on a 3D map gives command centers the information they need to effectively direct firefighting operations,” explained Sean Triplett, NIFC geospatial analysis group leader.

Triplett noted that during the June Juniper fire in the mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico, commanders used Fire Globe extensively to monitor and position resources. Meanwhile, during the Beaver Creek Fire in Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) streamed its lightning strike data live, which incident commanders could watch in Fire Globe and proactively respond as needed.

Left:  Significant Fire Potential: In June, wildland fires are most likely to break out in Southern Arizona and New Mexico.

The GIS platform also processes infrared hotspot satellite imagery, identifying and mapping the likelihood of flare-ups and new fires igniting. The ability to access remotely sensed fire data and see it live on a map helps firefighters stay ahead of fires.

Firefighters are now adding GIS mobile apps to complement their firefighting arsenals. Collector for ArcGIS helps responders capture field data on their mobile devices and connect that data to the platform. While on the ground, incident responders can collect and transfer data about a suitable place for a helicopter landing, the location of a flare-up, or the repositioning of a line crew. In the not-too-distant future, firefighters could become sensors themselves and have their locations mapped in real time, which would ensure their safety.

For assessing wildfire risk and distributing help, no other technology besides GIS makes more sense as a holistic awareness and response tool. The ability to prioritize and concurrently manage all types of incidents is a crucial need for all emergency managers, most especially firefighters.

NIFC Keeps track of wildfires across the country. This was a live map showing fires across the Southwest in real-time. It is updated every 15 minutes.




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