Geospatial Responses to Natural Disasters
This has been one of the worst years for wildfires, particularly for the American Southwest. During 2018, California alone has experienced the largest fire, the Mendocino Complex, and the most destructive wildfire, the Carr fire, in state history. Over the past year, many communities have been rocked by a powerful reminder of nature’s unpredictability. As these large-scale and costly incidents become a perennial challenge for many communities, the key for government organizations is to evolve from reactive strategies to proactive ones. By understanding location-specific data related to wildfires, communities can be better equipped to prepare for, respond to and recover from them. Communities have a new tool in this fight — location intelligence — which can help them better understand how to take action to help save lives and protect property.
Predicting the Unpredictable
U.S. federal agencies are taking major steps to innovate the ways they not only respond to wildfires, but also help prevent and predict them. Using spatial analytics tools, combined with imagery captured by aircraft and satellite, these agencies are modeling the unique risks that make specific locations prone to wildfires. These models are fed by data such as type and distribution of trees and ground cover vegetation, the materials used in building construction, land slope, and weather patterns, as well as historic climate and fire data. By integrating all these different forms of location information gathered over time, agencies can better predict where there is heightened risk and increased vulnerability. In some cases, these data-driven models can forecast a wildfire’s behavior on a map in a quarter of the time it takes to burn on the ground.
A Bird’s-Eye View
Responding to a fire effectively requires what we call situational awareness. This is an understanding of what is going on in real-time using location intelligence and integrating all the moving parts, or data, into a map. By using the element of location found in this data, decision makers can monitor the progression of a fire in relation to the crews working it. This requires data from different places to be combined to provide the situational awareness needed for decision-making. An example of this at a national level is the USA Wildfires Map. This map uses spatial analytics to show where wildfires are and how they are progressing toward containment based on authoritative data from a number of federal agencies. Specifically, the map shows active fires across the U.S. and includes an option to add a “smoke forecast,” which displays smoke emissions from the fires and how it drifts across the country.
Putting out these fires is only the beginning of a successful strategy. There are many other complicated efforts that need to be coordinated to help the people and resources that are affected, and all of these have a location component attached to them.
Responders and the public alike need to know where evacuations are occurring, where shelters and hospitals are located, and where food and clean water are available. Location intelligence enables better coordination, providing a clear picture of where resources are in relation to the people who need them the most. Disasters are also dislocating for communities as a whole, as services people rely on every day are disrupted.
During the wildfires in northern California, the agency that oversees hospitals, elder care homes, childcare centers, and other services had to map and analyze what facilities needed to be evacuated. Residents needed reliable information. This state agency started layering data about damaged and viable facilities onto an online interactive map with shelter locations and real-time fire data. Not only did the public now have an up-to-date, accurate source of information on shelters, other facilities and the fires, but multiple departments also had access to the same data. This type of information sharing helps ensure that efforts are better coordinated across the whole community.
Once a wildfire is contained, the danger isn’t over. This continued risk is often underestimated. One of the primary issues in the aftermath of wildfires is the fact that they drastically weaken the vegetation that provides much needed root foundation for the soil covering hillsides and mountain slopes. After the Thomas Fire, which devastated Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in California, mudslides threatened local communities due to the effects of the depleted plant fortification of the soil. Location intelligence, derived from data from multiple sources, was used to produce an interactive map showing the likelihood of landslides occurring in specific areas. These maps helped communicate the ongoing risk to the community and ensured that citizens remain vigilant. These maps also aided government agencies in planning and prioritizing recovery efforts based on the areas of greatest risk and concentration of people.
Wildfires are unpredictable, destructive and leave a drastically altered landscape in their aftermath. But with the kind of real-time situational awareness that location intelligence can provide, government agencies and the public can have an advantage over one of nature’s most devastating and dangerous phenomena. By knowing how fires might behave, where to go when they occur, and where resources are available after they occur, communities are better informed and better prepared to fight, survive and recover.
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