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GIS/GPS Application for fire management: A case study

When a major fire occurred at Point Reyes National Seashore, California, GIS/GPS were utilised to monitor the daily spread of the fire, measure fire suppression actions, and assess damage to structures and to natural and cultural resources. Fall tends to be hot and dry and is the period of highest fire danger when vegetation is desiccated.

The wildfire at Point Reyes was the area’s most devastating wildfire in 60 years with more than 12,000 acres of state, federal and private lands burnt. The fire began in an illegal campground on State Park lands, and propelled by hot, dry 50 mph winds. It spread rapidly through several decadent vegetation communities from the Bishop pine/Douglas fir along the Inverness Ridge to sand dunes along the Pacific Ocean. The rate of spread of the fire reached 3,100 acres per hour.

The California Office of Emergency Service dispatched a strike team of GIS specilaists to aid in fire analysis. Initially, the most critical information required from the GIS lab was the fire perimeter. Twice each day, a helicopter with GPS unit on-board flew the perimeter and a map was promptly produced for the firefighters. Another critical data layer was the location and the condition of structures destroyed by the fire. The California Department of Forestry, Marine Country Fire and National Park Service personnel surveyed the homes in the burn area with GPS units and collected data on the condition and location of structures. Within four days of the fire ignition, and while the fire was still burning, these data were converted to a GIS data layer and overlaid with a country parcel map to identify the owners of the structures.

Data was also gathered using GPS on location of hand lines bulldozer lines, road, trails, fire suppression effects, noxious weeds, vegetation plots, photo points and survey points. GIS was then used for mapping, measuring, and monitoring postfire analysis of burn effects and rehabilitation prescriptions. As users perceived the ability of GIS to measure and calculate information, they requested reports on acreage, linear distances and so forth.

The fire continued to flare up over the next 10 days, rethreatening homes along the part boundary. Not until 12 days after ignition was the fire declared controlled.

The lessons learnt from this fire have provided tremendous insights into fire management.

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National Park Service