Fight Fire with GIS

When disaster strikes, GIS technology is there. GIS technology has been used to help the survivors of the Joplin tornadoes, Japan earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. But, GIS is also used to prevent disasters from being worse than they have to be.

For example, the U.S. Forestry Service is currently using GIS technology to improve its fire management plans in Colorado and Wyoming. (In an upcoming American Sentinel University-sponsored Webinar, Michael Tuffly, principal for Environmental Resource Inventory and analyst for ERIA Consultants, will discuss how spatially explicit models are used to evaluate and quantify the fire risk in the forest lands in Colorado and Wyoming.)

When doing fire modeling in Colorado and Wyoming, Tuffly says, the forestry service is looking at long-term forest management plans based upon the fire hazard.

“One of the main manipulating forces of that was the bark beetle infestation that happened early in the 2010 and has subsequently began to escalate, which exacerbated the fire hazard in that area,” Tuffly says.

In the forest, the bark beetle is bad news. In the Coconino National Forest during the fall of 2002, the bark beetle was responsible for widespread ponderosa pine mortality. Conservative reports indicate the beetle caused the loss of a half-million acres of forest.

Bark beetles attack physiologically stressed trees. Once the beetles inhabit the area, the limbs and dead trees that they consumed accumulate and become a fire hazard. Essentially, the wood debris become fuels in the same way a newspaper is used to start a campfire. If fire hits these dead trees, flames spread quickly.

The Forestry Service estimates the bark beetle decimated 550,000 acres of forests in Colorado and Wyoming in 2010, bringing the total area destroyed to 4 million acres since 1996.

“The significance is that the trajectory is moving north and east into more visible and populated areas,” Janelle Smith, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said to the news agency Reuters.

With the increase in bark beetles in the forest of Colorado and Wyoming, it was imperative the Forestry Service identify areas that have high fire hazards.

Tuffly used the Forestry Service’s public ancillary data sets for mountain pine beetle mortality, while another non-profit organization created a fire module with ArcGIS. They are taking the data from those two entities and combining them, manipulating them and putting in user-specified parameters such as wind, speed, moisture and running the model, Tuffly says.

“From a management standpoint, you’ve now identified these areas that are high hazard, and you can go in and do forest management, such as thinning and removal {of fire fuels},” Tuffly says.

Using Tuffly’s ArcGIS set up, the Forestry Service can see areas vulnerable to fires and take the appropriate management techniques to prevent a forestry fire. But in the unfortunate case a fire breaks out, the ArcGIS can also help fight it.

When forest firefighters have fought fires in the past, they did not have GIS technology to help them predict where the fire would move or how the fire would react to a gust of wind.

At best, they had aerial infra-red (IR) technology that could help them obtain a fire perimeter in real time. GIS technology complements the IR technology by addressing where the fire is, allocating resources and being able to assess and quantify the metrics on how well the effort is going, Tuffly says.

“Now, they’ve got full-on GPS on the aircraft and they know where the aircraft is {in clouds in smoke},” Tuffly says.

And thanks to Tuffly and his team, they have the land mapped and better understand how the fire will move. This will no doubt save lives of wildlife, people and much-needed trees.

This is the first in a two-part series about GIS in Disasters leading up to Mike Tuffly’s webinar.

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