Eye of the Firestorm

April 1, 2004
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Emergency efforts meld surveying, mapping and GIS in response to Southern California fires.



View of Interstate 15 on October 26, 2003, 10 a.m.
It was about 8 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003. The first chore of the day was to set all of my clocks back to standard time. I was falling back myself-on a patio chair sipping coffee and fine-tuning my digital watches with the aid of my old Radio Shack TimeKube, a small radio that receives time and weather from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration clock in Boulder, Colo. The sunny morning suddenly got perceptibly darker. "A cloud," I thought.

But it wasn't a cloud. A quick glance to the easterly hillsides of San Diego revealed huge, ominous, billowing plumes of smoke. I have seen many brush and forest fires over the years in my home-based area of San Diego. But they usually don't become large within the corporate limits of major metropolitan areas, where fire suppression apparatus are readily available and response times are short. Still, it was already quite obvious that this was a very large and serious fire. And there was little doubt it posed a real threat to the community. I knew I could be expecting a phone call soon.

The story of my involvement begins a little more than six months earlier actually, in late March '03. The impending military action in Iraq triggered a meeting of the Emergency Response Team for the county of San Diego. This team involves nearly every local government department and agency. I was invited because the team managers wanted to add a new critical component: GIS.

My group, the Department of Public Works GIS, was selected to provide "around the clock" mapping and analysis services in the event of any declared disaster including, of course, fires. Following that meeting we developed a tentative schedule and action plan. Then I more or less put it on the back burner-that is, until I got that fateful phone call on October 26.<

Situation reports from CATS.

Fast and Accurate

I quickly discovered my usual route to the County Operations Center, Interstate 15 South, was already closed. As a result I took a winding, circuitous course around the road closures planning my route "on-the-fly" by monitoring the local radio stations for posted road closings. At one point the radio reported a small plane had made an emergency crash landing on Route 163, only a few hundred yards from where I was.

It took me more than two hours to complete what is typically a 15-minute commute. The normally busy thoroughfares around the County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) were dark, foreboding and eerily devoid of traffic-except for the roadblocks.

The officers overseeing the roadblocks were wearing hospital face masks to mitigate the effects of the enveloping smoke. I flashed my ID badge at each checkpoint and gave a hasty description of my mission to gain passage.

When I finally reached the EOC it seemed like nightfall was approaching even though it was only mid-afternoon. I went straight to the Command Center and checked in. The relative calm of the group staffing the emergency consoles was in stark contrast to the chaos I had seen in the street on my way. I immediately set about the task of constructing a remote GIS module. The Communications Center that houses the EOC is on a different network than GIS. When I arrived, I had a laptop and a replicated set of the base map data on CDs. By the end of the week the EOC had expanded to four workstations and a separate server.

Within a few hours we were producing "situation maps" based on data obtained from NASA's MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) EOS (Earth Observation Satellites) site.

Four types of information were urgently needed:

  • Where exactly was the fire?
  • Where was the fire moving?
  • What were the effects of the fire damage?
  • How much area was affected?


Smoke trails from NASA satellite.
To get prompt answers to these types of questions, the Emergency Response Team utilizes an analysis model for hazards, consequences and responses based on research by engineering company Science Application International Corporation. The model is called the Consequences Assessment Tool Set (CATS) Joint Assessment of Catastrophic Events application. CATS runs as an extension to ESRI's (Redlands, Calif.) mapping software ArcView 3.x and creates comprehensive reports about areas impacted by disasters.

There were a few minor hurdles to overcome. The CATS base map, as well as the satellite imagery data, is maintained in standard geographic coordinates (latitude and longitude). The San Diego County GIS data is projected in California State Plane Coordinates (U.S. survey foot), and the fire data from the California Department of Forestry (CDF) uses the Albers NAD 27 (meters) system.

So the initial challenge for me was literally to put all of the data on the same page. Since the department's primary software suite ArcGIS includes ArcTools, a data transformation utility toolset, it was the primary vehicle employed for this task. The San Diego GIS team was confident that the software was fully equipped to handle the task. The team further elected to work in the Shape file format to keep what eventually became a fairly large dataset in its most generic and useful form.

Affected areas from satellite imagery analysis.
By Day Three of the project, enough of the burn areas became contained to allow the county's damage assessment teams to go to work. For mapping purposes, county administrators wanted a GPS position on each affected property location to match up with the Assessor's Parcel Number and the street address in the geocoded route files. GPS technology was essential for location validation because some of the areas were burned nearly beyond recognition.

"Having the GPS on [the project] was the only way they were going to be able to pinpoint [the addresses]," says Jamie Nicholas, engineer technician II for San Diego County, one of the data collectors on the scene. Nicholas says she couldn't tell in many areas where the lot structures even were.

The recovery teams gathered an aggregate of DGPS and recreational grade receivers for the response efforts, but the shortage of experienced GPS operators surfaced immediately. There were four GIS analysts with GPS training and four land surveyors available for data collection duty. But the number of damage assessment teams quickly grew to 18 and the need for more equipment grew just as quickly.

Nicholas set out to gather an inventory of GPS equipment as quickly as she could. At hand were one SOKKIA Axis 3 (Olathe, Kan.) and five Trimble Geo XT units (Sunnyvale, Calif.). She called around to local vendors with little luck. Then Nicholas reached West Marine in Riverside County; it was through this vendor that she picked up 10 discounted Magellan Meridian Gold (Thales Navigation Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.) GPS units, a receiver her field supervisor had been impressed with in the past. After some quick programming, the arsenal of technology was ready to go.

There was a near immediate demand for accurate data of the actual burn affected areas-and about two hours before deployment to match the GPS receivers to their users and get everyone up to speed. It was a "baptism by fire" for all of us. Teams consisting of a building inspector (engineer), a data collection person (surveyor/GIS analyst or other) and a Red Cross volunteer assembled; few of these people had ever worked together before. Not everyone was familiar with the equipment, so those with stronger backgrounds in GPS like me and Jamie did our best to help our comrades learn to operate the equipment effectively.

"I figured if I could learn these things so easily, someone else could, too," Nicholas says. Once prepped, the teams set out to gather the needed data. It was shortly after that when I heard it. The planning department's GIS "guru" said, "It's a good thing we were able to get those surveyors onto these teams."

Overview of fire-impacted areas.

Quick Data Transfer

The makeshift survey teams gathered most readings within 10 to 20 ft; some readings were right on. Nicholas and others compiled site numbers and their northings and eastings in Microsoft Access files to be processed as soon as they came in from the field.

On the third day, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) recovery team arrived. Along with them came the need for a large volume of high quality "hard copy" maps showing the affected areas with owner information. The GIS team was able to quickly expand our hard copy map production capabilities by utilizing one of our File Transfer Protocol sites as a virtual drive. That enabled all networked plotters to generate printed maps simultaneously. The FEMA folks were quickly provided with the maps and data they needed to visit the damaged areas and get that part of the recovery process underway.

GIS Analyst Logan McKay with a Trimble GeoXT at a burn area.

Assessing the Situation

For Nicholas, it was the first time she had participated in such an immediate response effort, and she'll admit that at times it was difficult.

"There were times when it was very hard to focus," Nicholas says. "What really hit me [was] seeing all the melted toys-those had an effect on me. What was really enlightening, though, was to see the people [residents]; they were relieved to know it was over. I expected different, for them to be more bitter."

But they weren't at all, she says. Everyone was cooperative and supportive.

This was not my first experience on a wildfire, however. And it wasn't the first time I worked in "emergency mode." It wasn't even the first time I worked in close proximity to high-ranking government officials. But this event produced the greatest amount of devastation I have ever intimately witnessed.

There were three major fires in the 2003 complex: The Cedar Fire, The Paradise Fire and The Otay Fire. Combined, they burned 383,270 acres. A devastating total of 2,454 residences were destroyed and 14 lives (including one firefighter) were lost. Ancillary or collateral damage included approximately 800 power poles, 1,200 traffic signs, ground weather radar stations and seismic monitoring systems.

A disaster of this magnitude certainly wreaks death and devastation upon a community. But it also has a strange way of connecting people who may not have ever met in normal circumstances. From early on a sort of fatalism-based kinship formed among fire victims and emergency workers. Through all of this there was always one tangible constant. From the firefighters who battled the flames, to the residents with the "thousand-yard stare" who had just lost everything, to the surveyors and GIS people who worked shoulder to shoulder to gather information and help others rebuild their lives, there was an extremely strong and ever-present sense of community. It is a tragic fact of history that the Fire of 2003 destroyed homes, property and lives in one brief event. But the friends and relationships formed because of this event will remain for some time. And that is in no small part because geography really does connect people.

Note: There was another Emergency Map Center set up at Gillespie Field and operated by staff from ESRI. Their mission was to supply location maps and Fire Books to the many firefighters who came from locations outside San Diego County.

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