NMWatch: Mapping Fires in Collaborative Fashion

During the Northern California King Fire, a fire mapping tool created for New Mexico proved its value.

by / September 29, 2014

Just east of Sacramento, Calif., the King Fire has burned more than 97,000 acres in the Eldorado National Forest -- and after blazing since Sept. 13, it finally has started to fizzle, thanks to four days of rain.  

But during its peak, Mike Inglis, associate director of the Earth Data Analysis Center (EDAC), needed to give his family the most up-to-date information about the fire -- info he got via NMWatch.org.

“They could track the progress of the fire boundaries in an easy to use format,” said Shawn Penman, GIS specialist and programmer at EDAC. “It allowed them to make some family decisions. They could zoom in and take a look at the website and get the answers they were looking for.”

Originally developed in 2011 specifically for the state of New Mexico, the NMWatch public Web mapping application was created by EDAC in collaboration with the New Mexico Department of Information Technology, and displays nationwide Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination (GeoMAC) boundaries along with surface-level smoke, other natural disasters and affected communities. Though more data is available for fires occurring in New Mexico, the tool ultimately integrates federal, state and local resources to provide information about wildfires nationwide.

“This isn’t for the fire community,” Penman said. “They have their own sources. Lots of the data layers are geared toward local preparedness people who might need to do some planning. It’s also for the public. For example, my mom lives outside of Colorado Springs, and she could look at it and see where the fire boundaries are in relationship to her house.”

Although the public already has access to online maps of current fire locations and perimeters via GeoMAC, that particular mapping application is limited to fires on federal land -- or fires being extinguished using federal resources.

“NMWatch is a collaborative effort,” Penman said. “There’s no central fire information source. If it’s not on federal land, then there’s no public information about it. We monitor different Twitter accounts, blogs and interagency dispatch centers.”

While data layers are provided by various agencies and sources, two to three EDAC employees update the back-end information, which is then pushed onto software that is visible to the public via NMWatch. Fire information is updated daily, but most of the layers, such as community and structural data, are updated quarterly.

NMWatch is developed on top of the New Mexico Broadband Map portal, which gives a similar view of available broadband Internet services by type (cable, fiber, wireless) in the state.

“We looked to the broadband portal for what already existed and how much of that code we could leverage to build this quickly and efficiently,” said Shirley Baros, EDAC’s GIS program manager. “It gave us a jump-start in putting this together.”

Baros said the data and infrastructure cost tens of thousands of dollars; however, she said the application was created inexpensively because the framework for the broadband portal was already in place.

Since its launch, EDAC has added a number of features to NMWatch, including: 

  • local tribal reservation files;
  • x and y coordinates on the map;
  • a tool to calculate distance and area; and
  • a next-generation radar precipitation layer.

In addition to the public utility of NMWatch and the New Mexico Broadband Map, EDAC has participated in a number of other public data projects. It was a collaborator for NMFlood.org, which provided floodplain administrators, emergency managers, community officials and citizens access to data relevant to flooding in the state. EDAC also provided underlying information for the state’s Environmental Public Health Tracking Program so researchers and the public can learn about relationships between environmental exposures and their associated health effects.

“Local government folks don’t have the resources — human [or] dollar — to build these kinds of applications,” Baros said. “We have been involved in working with FEMA for a number of years, so we saw it as natural to provide this info.”

As EDAC builds on the current NMWatch application, it will re-write the code so the program is optimized for mobile use. It is also researching how to provide additional data layers such as light detection and ranging (lidar).

“[Lidar] provides such great elevation data,” Penman said. “A plane flies over the earth and calculates elevation. You could see the outlines of trees and range roads. The calculation is $28 million to collect this data across the state, so we’re working on getting money from the U.S. Geological Survey and the state Legislature.”

Penman also said that she’s researching a smoke forecasting mapping service.

“Smoke and its health effects are a big concern,” she said, “and I need to find a good data source to add to NMWatch.”

Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.