GIS Plays Key Role In Firefighting

GIS Plays Key Role In Firefighting

Lynn Barclay

As federal officials gear up for what is expected to be another dangerous wildfire season, they will have a new firefighting tool, thanks to a geographic information system application created in response to last year's crisis.

GeoMAC, short for Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination, is a multilayered GIS system that maps fire conditions against a wide range of variables, such as topography, weather forecasts, population centers, roads, buildings and habitats.

Developed by Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., GeoMAC enables fire crew coordinators to better allocate scarce firefighting resources according to the degree of risk particular fires represent.

GeoMAC originally was a short-term response to a severe 2000 fire season. Nearly 123,000 wildland fires ? as opposed to property fires ? in the United States burned more than 8.4 million acres, almost 50 percent worse than in 1999, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The center, the coordinating group for eight federal and state agencies responsible for firefighting programs, was faced with the task of deciding which fires merited the highest priority of firefighters and equipment.

"Every day new fires were starting, and sometimes [the officials] didn't even know about some of the new fires. It was changing that fast," said Russ Johnson, the public safety industry manager with ESRI of Redlands, Calif.

The initial request to build the GeoMAC application came in August 2000 from the Great Basin fire coordinators. The Great Basin area is comprised of Utah, southern Idaho and Nevada, said Katy Madrid, project manager for GeoMAC and a GIS specialist in fire and aviation management for the Bureau of Land Management, one of NIFC's member agencies.

Other members are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Aircraft Services and the National Association of State Foresters.

The Great Basin coordinators had $250,000 to spend and needed a system up and running in two weeks, Madrid said.

Fighting the Good Fight
Cost of battling U.S. wildland fires
YearNo. of FiresAcres BurnedCost to Suppress

ESRI responded quickly, and 10 days later developed "a rapid prototype application," said Johnson, who had spent 30 years with various wildland fire agencies before joining the company.

IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., which holds a contract for information technology services with the Forest Service, also came through for the project.

"IBM donated the equipment to make it happen so fast [for] the best interests of the customer," said Fred Collins, IBM's senior information technology architect for the agency. The company provided a Windows NT server for the public side of the Web site, Collins said.

The application linked GIS technology to the Internet, using remote-sensing data and some image-interpreting skills to provide managers scattered over three states with almost real-time information to base their decisions on.

The idea was to give the coordinators better information so they could perform triage by determining which fires were a threat to life, property and natural resources, Johnson said. This provided coordinators a better way to track fire conditions and evaluate which fires posed the greatest risk of unacceptable consequences.

Before GeoMAC, coordinators working with a text report would typically have a conference call with up to a dozen or more people to discuss conditions and try to agree upon priorities. But the 2000 fire season overwhelmed that process.

GeoMAC overlaid data from thousands of automated remote weather stations that monitor factors such as the moisture content of soil, air and ground temperatures and wind direction and speed, with topographical maps, satellite images, road and infrastructure data, population information and other variables.

The combined layers of information allowed the managers to rank fires in order of the risk they posed and allocate manpower and equipment accordingly.

"We did want it Web-based, because we wanted everyone to be looking at the same pictures when they were making the conference calls," Madrid said. The GIS system did not eliminate the text reports, but it provided a geospatial dimension to them, she said.

GeoMAC also provided another, somewhat unanticipated benefit. ESRI created a second, public Web site that mirrored the one being used by the coordinators. This allowed the public to track fire events and gave the fire agencies' public relations staffs both sources of information and sites to post new information as it became available.

GeoMAC was such a success, even as a prototype, that NIFC moved to make it an ongoing program this year. The center pulled together some $260,000 to support GeoMAC from all its participating agencies, a relatively small investment considering the lives and resources it can help save, Madrid said.

This year, GeoMAC's geographic coverage will extend from east of the Rocky Mountains, including the Denver area, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Florida, Texas and other states that face serious fire risks each year may be interested in expanding it to a national system.

Within the covered area, California firefighting groups have expressed great interest in GeoMAC.

"California may have come up with $100,000 to add more specific, state-based data, some of their more important [data] layers," Madrid said.

She said NIFC is concentrating on getting feedback from fire coordinators in the field to make sure GeoMAC has information they find useful and to get suggestions for further refinements.

The new system has already had a huge effect on the firefighting agencies: "GeoMAC was kind of like a proof of concept for the Internet map server applications," Madrid said. "A lot of people are really interested in some new applications. I'd like to see it come down to a more tactical level."

One aspect of GeoMAC that made an impression on Madrid was the speed with which ESRI and the coordinators were able to get it off the ground.

"This was the most exciting project I've ever worked on, because it was based directly on a field need and came together quickly, rather than a midlevel manager's idea of what would be useful," she said.

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