Ill Wind Sparks Web-Based GIS Fire Management System

"It's part of a geography class. We give them a project area, they do the project and give us the data back."

by / January 11, 2008

Graphic: Aerial photo overlaid with the county highway map and home locations from a local high school project. The program has already located and assessed approximately 100,000 residential structures. As of early 2006, an estimated 400,000 point features have been collected.

On July 4, 1999, Minnesota experienced a "blowdown" -- a windstorm that flattened 600 square miles of forest in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. After a massive rescue effort of holiday visitors, the state was left with a very large fire hazard. "We had a fuel load that was in excess of anything we had seen before," said William Glesener, Firewise specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "Since then, we've had several fires up there, and we recognized that we needed to manage the Wildland/Urban Interface. So the state of Minnesota got on board with the national Firewise program, and started looking at things we could do, and things we might need in case of a catastrophic event."

At the time, incident management teams were doing some mapping of homes. "Tom Eiber was the person in charge of the DNR's Firewise program at the time," said Glesener, and it soon became apparent that there was a lot at stake and a bigger view was needed. "We needed to know where the homes were," said Glesener, "where the hydrants were, where the fire stations, nursing homes and hospitals were."

In addition, said Glesener, there was a need to track hazards to low-flying aircraft. "There are three different entities that are tracking stuff above the treeline," said Glesener. "The FCC tracks things that broadcast, the FAA tracks things that are over 110 feet tall, but you have a potential for a local building that is above the treeline but is not 110 feet tall such as a lookout of fire tower that isn't registered ... In helicopter operations during wildfires, that can be a great concern, so we starting looking around to get all that data together."

The result was a comprehensive aerial obstruction dataset, and momentum that carried forward into discussions with the DNR's Management Information Systems staff -- as well as other federal and state agencies -- to find a better way to help emergency managers.

"The premise of the program," said Glesener, "is basically 250 features that Tom originally identified. We were collecting the point attributes, but as the thing built, and we got over 120,000 homes into the system, we realized we wanted to add attributes. There are 10 static attributes we collect, such as the feature type, the location, who actually got the information, and when it was collected, verified and approved. Those are static."

"We also have flex fields," said Glesener, "15 other attributes in the database. It's just a column, but it gets tied back to the actual feature type. The flex field one for a fire department is the station number. For a home, it is the E-911 address. But if you open up the database, you can see all that stuff in the same column. That's where the Java-based Web application comes into play."

The system utilizes Spatial Oracle, UMN MapServer and Java. Javascripting builds the front end html code for Web display.

"We're allowing that one big dataset to be displayed and have those flex fields displayed with other values based on the scripting behind the scenes. One of the nice things about that, is that we're able to attach files to these point locations. So conceivably, we could attach 15 files to a single point -- they can be PDFs, Word documents, spreadsheets, etc. It could be another database. So you can exponentially increase the amount of

data we are holding based on that one feature point. It's GIS on the Web.

So far, said Glesener, the system has been amassing data, and generating planning maps. Last year, during the Ham Lake fire, the system provided structure concentrations and data on residences in the area.

Students Help
"We have students doing GIS -- analyzing aerial photography to determine the risk of homes to wildfire," said Glesener. Most are high-school students, but students from junior high school to college also participate. "It's part of a geography class. We give them a project area, they do the project and give us the data back. They are learning real-life skills in GIS and we're gleaning data out of this. We are capturing all their ratings on individual homes and we can then take it to local emergency planners and say: 'we have a high-risk area, what can we do project wise to help reduce the risk in this area?' So we've got students across the state actually doing functional work in the system to help emergency management planners."

Density Surface Modeling
"We will soon be able to do some density surface modeling on the system online," said Glesener. "So rather than having to have a client application installed on a machine ... we get some information from the person wanting to run the model, and then the model gets run on the server. It will kick out a raster image that will show the areas of high risk from those home evaluations of the aerial photography. It's a more dynamic system than going to the national map to look at data. You can add data to it, you can manipulate the data relatively easy, and then you can actually get a representation back. The caveat with it is it is critical infrastructure, and is on a secure Web site and secure server and not available to the public."

Glesener said that plans are in the works to allow the data to be displayed on a standardized client such as ArcGIS, Web Mapping Service (WMS), or Web Feature Service (WFS). "One returns a raster image," said Glesener," the other displays point coordinates and the attributes. So if somebody does have a client application, and they have a password, they'll be able to use their existing client and pull the information. Once we get that up and running we can go to a sheriff's office or a dispatcher and say: 'Use your existing dispatching software that has a GIS component, and you'll be able to see everything we've got.' We want that available so dispatchers can use it."

The Minnesota Firewise program secured a modest grant from the National Fire Plan for the system to purchase software and hardware. "The cost-benefit ratio to this thing is extraordinary," said Glesener.

Collaboration was easy, said Glesener. "They hear about it and say 'You have what?' Then they get a gleam in their eye, and they want in on it." Glesener says other agencies are interested including the state's Homeland Security and Emergency Management agency.

"I just had a request from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for the fire departments and training facilities," said Glesener. "The request was filled by just turning on the feature types and clicking 'export.' This probably won't be necessary once we initiate the password-protected Web feature service on the system.

Government agencies are invited to contribute data. "Anybody can collect a point, and if they provide us with enough information we will throw it into the system. We aren't going to discriminate against people putting data in, the only thing is it's got to be good data."

The general process for contributing data is:

  • Express interest and receive a login after confirming the affiliation to an organization or agency.
  • Utilize a 12-channel or better GPS and simply locate an item, identify it with some basic attributes and submit the information.
  • Larger datasets mainlined by agencies can be submitted directly to Glesener for upload into the system. He can be reached at:

Wayne Hanson Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government