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GIS Helps Local, State, and Federal Agencies Respond to Northern California Firestorms

July 16, 2008

Redlands, California-Thousands of firefighters from local, state, and federal agencies are using geographic information system (GIS) software to coordinate and effectively respond to the recent outbreak of Northern California firestorms.

Agencies are using digitally mapped data, spatial analysis, and modeling to better plan and carry out fire suppression operations. ESRI is providing software, professional services, and other technical resources to help with the response effort. In addition, ESRI staff is assisting GIS professionals in the Multi-Agency Coordination Center in Northern California.

"GIS and remote-sensing specialists work to capture, manipulate, integrate, and maintain data collected from sensors and aerial assets such as the United States Air Force Global Hawk, Air National Guard RC26 planes, multiple infrared sensors, and commercial satellite coverage," says David Blankinship, senior GIS analyst, Colorado Springs Fire Department and GIS specialist supporting the California wildfire response. "GIS is used to quickly disseminate intelligence to incident commanders, planning units, and analysts deployed at different fire incident command posts. This helps teams gain a continuous, comprehensive picture of what's happening on the ground."

"The numerous wildfires in California represent an enormous challenge to agencies," says Russ Johnson, public safety solutions (www.esri.com/industries/public_safety/index.html) manager, ESRI. "We're working with local, state, and federal government organizations, as well as private business and local residents, to help. GIS is being used to gain accurate situational awareness, coordinate multiple agencies fighting the fires, facilitate communication, and provide overall decision support."

GIS experts deployed during the recent 2007 Southern California fires (www.esri.com/disaster_response/wildlandfire_support2007.html) are working with CALFIRE and other agencies to provide strategic planning as part of the overall response. Incident management teams are using GIS to map active fire perimeters, hot spots, burned areas, and affected communities. Protection priorities are established with the assistance of GIS when flammable vegetation on steep slopes is mapped and modeled. GIS-generated maps are also used to answer questions from the public about fire locations, road closures, damaged properties, evacuations, shelter locations, and Red Cross assistance.

GIS is helping manage the numerous California state assets involved in battling the blazes including more than 18,000 personnel, 1,000 fire engines, 300 dozers, and 100 helicopters.

"You have literally hundreds of fires that are taking place over a wide geographic range, you have large numbers of response assets and personnel, and you compound that with the sheer number of data collection assets," says Blankinship. "What we do is use GIS to bring in large volumes of complex data from multiple formats and integrate it into a single, comprehensive, usable source. Fire commanders and others who aren't technology experts but experts at fighting fires can get answers to their time-critical questions like: where's my fire, what is it doing, and where should I deploy my limited resources? We distill that enormous volume of data into actionable information."

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