To tame wildfire, close the gap between data in the cloud and knowledge on the ground
Paper maps versus an out-of-control wildfire is nobody’s idea of a fair fight. But firefighters still too often resort to printed cartography when battling blazes like those that have repeatedly devastated parts of the American West.
A panel Tuesday morning at GEOINT 2019 outlined ways to change that, from collecting more comprehensive data about the risk and extent of wildfires to building ways to transit that data to individual firefighters in as close to real-time as possible.
The past two years of California fire history have provided ample evidence of the need to attack this problem. Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, reminded the audience of the stunning spread of the fall 2018 Camp Fire.
“From the minute this fire started, around 6:30 in the morning, this fire traveled 6.3 miles in less than an hour and a half,” Johnson said.
High winds swept flaming embers ahead of the existing conflagration—“embercast”—and in one situation, generated a “firenado,” an unsettling sight shown to the audience via video clip.
“From my perspective as a fire chief and a firefighter and a technologist in the public safety space, this is the time where we bring our ability to analyze data and understand scientifically what’s going on in the environment, and find the technological tools that will bring those to the incident commanders,” Johnson continued.
But on the ground, he said, we’re not there yet: “The incident commanders in a wildfire setting are still in many cases throwing paper maps across the hood of their vehicle.”
Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group, noted the weight of tradition.
“Legacy wildfire strategies are built on a 100-year-old methodology,” said Dargan, who served as California’s first female state fire marshal. “We invented this mechanism, this methodology of firefighting, back in the days of mules and shovels.”
But the growing danger and damage of wildfires demands changes to what she called “a culture of tactical,” or the instinct to solve the problem first and figure the rest out later.
“We have spent $40 billion of money in the last two years, dealing with the insurance, recovery, and firefighting costs,” Dargan said. “That is unacceptable.”
Firefighters without accurate, real-time data can suffer far worse outcomes. United States Geological Survey (USGS) director James Reilly explained to the audience how shifting winds led the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire to overrun 19 Prescott, Ariz., firefighters who didn’t know of that changing threat.
“They never saw it coming,” Reilly said.
He and Dargan outlined several initiatives to collect and analyze data and then deliver the information to firefighters on the ground.
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, for instance, now operates two multi-mission Pilatus PC-12 aircraft that can be scrambled to collect color and infrared imagery of wildfires and can send data down to firefighters’ mobile devices within 10 minutes, Dargan said.
Earlier this week, she added, the California National Guard turned on the capability to shapefile updates of fires to firefighters every 15 minutes, and the Colorado National Guard will soon have the same ability.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research, meanwhile, has begun modeling weather around fires in 3D to give a more accurate view of where winds might spread their embers next.
Reilly pointed to LandFire, a project created by the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture to map wildlife vegetation, meaning potential fire fuel, and said firefighters use this as a tool to assess evacuation routes and decide where to preposition equipment before fire season.
USGS’s GeoMAC (Multi-Agency Coordination) map offers a nationwide view of fires to lend strategic situational awareness for incident commanders.
Government agencies are now augmenting these mapping efforts by using LiDAR data from both airborne and spaceborne vehicles to gauge the fuel potential of forest canopy.
Human intervention also plays a role. Panelist Rachael Brady, a research data specialist with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, employs statistical models and geospatial analysis to track wilderness arson and identify perpetrators. In a brief ceremony after the panel, Brady received a 2019 Achievement Award from USGIF for her contributions.
Reilly and Johnson also noted the role of development patterns, urging action to make buildings in wildfire-prone settings more resistant.
Getting the types of aforementioned information to firefighters in nearly real time will require major advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Dargan noted that Intterra is working with Amazon’s Rekognition image-identification software to detect fires early on.
Reilly began his remarks with a blunt recommendation for AI-driven alerts: “To be able to get to that very low latency of information, we’re going to have to get the humans out of the loop.”
Dargan set out an ambitious metric: fire-perimeter data with a resolution down to 1 square meter, updated at least every two minutes. That would be a complex endeavor with a simple rationale—as she said, “I need to know where the fire is at all times.”