Growing up, we had Smokey the Bear reminding us that “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Now, we call them wildfires, but the message hasn’t changed. The context is certainly much broader.

Each season of wildfires in the U.S. seems to be the worst on record. When the problem is that big, how does the individual make a difference? Smokey’s messages come to mind. Chief among them was to make sure your campfire is fully extinguished. But, as surveyors and geospatial professionals, what can you do when the bear points his paw in your direction and repeats his iconic phrase?

The obvious answer is, button down your field operations and ensure you aren’t part of the problem. That’s also the easy answer. After that, it gets more complicated.

This month’s story about tracking wildfires and volcanic eruptions speaks to what the profession(s) are doing once an event is underway. Tracking and forecasting the progress of the disasters is extremely important. But, Smokey wants us to prevent disaster.

There are some obvious roles in forestry management where the geospatial community provides significant, detailed information on stands of timber. Advances in sensor technology have greatly improved the accuracy of the data collected, whether it is for yield management or preservation efforts.  

Mapping, in general, provides useful information. While the information on age, type, and condition of the trees in a forest may not be the goal of a mapping project, detailed mapping can be combined with data from other sources to offer some insights into the make up of a particular forest and its vulnerability.

There’s a theme developing here. It’s all about data. Who has it? And, what information do they have? As Andrew W. Hait with the Economics Statistics Division of the U.S. Census Bureau noted recently in a conversation with POB, there are at least 17 federal agencies providing statistics. Even if we narrow that number for purposes of talking specifically about forests, it is clear that data can be spread across a number of places. Finding sources for data you might need is difficult enough; add the imperative of the danger to life and property, and it is clear that decisions may need to be made on incomplete data. 

There are other issues about data. While we’re talking about source (who), can we validate the quality of the data based on where it comes from? Quality, in this case, can mean not only the level of accuracy, but also how recently the data were collected. Centimeter accuracy from a survey a year ago may be inadequate. Similarly, last week’s data may also be insufficient. Then there is the issue of pulling data from multiple sources. Assuming the format is not a barrier, are you looking at pieces of the puzzle that are two years old next to pieces where data was collected last month? In the case of the wildfires, first responders need to know if there is new construction that could represent additional lives at risk.

Individual surveyors can play a role in providing data, but there may be an even greater value in helping to frame the discussion before a disaster strikes. This can lead to better information guiding environmental stewardship, or it can be life-saving data used when responding to the disasters that do occur.