Fighting wildland forest fires with GIS

Fighting wildland forest fires with GIS

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This month, the Canadian province of Quebec joined Colorado, Arizona, and other North American “hotspots” fighting a series of out-of-control wildland fires. Each year, in the U.S. alone, over 100,000 wild fires destroy over four million acres of forests and grasslands. Property damages, costs of fighting the fires, and expenses to rehabilitate the scorched land spiral into the billions of dollars. Brazil, Australia, Russia, Indonesia, and other countries also face similar challenges in controlling wild burns. Sprawling housing developments in forestland have put new pressures on managing these fires. Land managers, fire fighters, and ecologists are using GIS technologies to win the heated battle of fire management.

In 2001, the United States government launched GeoMAC, the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination system. GeoMAC is a GIS-based system that was developed through a partnership of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the USGS. The system interlinks base topographic maps, buildings, property data, imagery data, fire response resources, and thousands of remote weather stations. These GPS-linked stations monitor soil moisture, wind direction, ground temperature, and other key variables to help detect new fires, and monitor behavior of active fires. The GeoMAC system, which is accessible via the Internet, enables centralized and on-site managers to rapidly make decisions based on real-time data.

Henderson Aviation is an active participant in the high-tech fight to manage wildland fires. Henderson operates a fleet of helicopters that are used to produce perimeter maps, identify fire hotspots, and collect other critical information for fire managers. Henderson flies over active fires and films both standard color and thermal video. The video is integrated with Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) to collect important latitude and longitude readings. Through voice-activated controls, separate still photos are also captured during the flight.

Back on the ground, the flight data is integrated with LAND INFO topographic base maps to create perimeter maps for the fire. This enables calculations for fire acreage and fire line proximity to residential structures, wildlife habitats, and other sensitive areas. Flight data is delivered to fire managers via hard copy plots, VHS cassettes, & ArcView shape files.

Henderson also has the capability to beam real-time flight data to Hotshot teams on the ground. Through special transmitters, the flight data can be used to guide field teams to underground fires. These underground fires may not be identifiable to the naked eye. Therefore, the thermal imagery, integrated with geospatial mapping, acts as the guide for ground teams. Hotshot teams are able to find and extinguish these underground threats before they flare above ground.

“Safety is probably the most important influence of GIS on fighting wildfires.” commented Staci Owens, Henderson Aviation’s Camera Operations Manager. “In addition to deploying manpower and resources to the fire’s hotspots, the flight data also enables fire managers to keep personnel out of really dangerous areas.”

Fire managers use a myriad of planes, helicopters, tanker trucks, and ground forces to assault large fires. The coordination and efficient use of these forces are critical to beating the fire. Using the thermal photography and GIS base data, managers pinpoint retardant and water air assaults on the fire’s hotspots, which are often hidden under a veil of thick smoke.

Forest fires are not isolated to North America. Recent large fires in Asia, Australia, and South America have prompted the need for a global effort to better manage fires. In 1998, Brazil encountered one of the largest fires the world has seen. The fire burned 8.1 million acres of globally significant rain forests. The fire burned uncontrollably for eight months, and prompted the Brazilian government to seek the help of the United Nations. Following the tragedy, the United Nations recommended the implementation of a regular technology program to monitor threatened areas, calculate risks, and analysis of vegetation and weather data. The proposed system is very similar to the United States’ GeoMAC system.

LAND INFO is prepared to support fire management and land rehabilitation programs around the world. Topographic base maps, 3D terrain models, imagery, feature data, and other GIS information are available for over 125 countries. The company also provides custom data production for specialized needs.