In the fall of 2003, Santa Ana winds whipped several small fires into an inferno in Southern California's San Bernardino National Forest. As the blaze raged for nearly a week, the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce (MAST), which had begun preparing for such an emergency months before, used GIS technology to direct firefighting efforts, track the fire's progress, guide evacuations, monitor traffic, assess damage and more.

Local and federal agencies formed MAST to mitigate fire danger and plan for possible disaster. They deployed wireless HP iPAQs loaded with ESRI's ArcPad GIS software to access and share near real-time geographic data on fire movement, escape routes and other information.

MAST produced GIS maps of topological data, vegetation, soil types, population, water sources and evacuation routes. New wireless technology allowed officials to fly over the blaze in helicopters, enter changing fire perimeter coordinates into HP iPAQs, then instantly transmit the data to ground personnel.

HP servers powered a MAST Web site that supplied fire information to the public. And large-format HP plotters provided hard-copy GIS maps for fire planners, the media and others.

Getting Together

Creating a plan to deal with the dying forest was massively complex. Drought conditions and a bark-beetle infestation had killed an estimated 900,000 trees across two counties. Using the GIS resources of member agencies, MAST created detailed GIS depictions of the San Bernardino National Forest that indicated where fires might start and spread, and routes for getting citizens to safety. MAST's Web site and brochures identified shelters and safe areas, and provided tips for protecting property in danger areas

Loaded with ESRI's ArcPad software, HP iPAQs give field users access to databases and provide mapping, GIS and GPS integration. MAST's mobile GIS solution has begun to replace paper maps and hand-drawn perimeter lines with dynamic data that changes as quickly as the fire. Personnel can switch various data layers on or off to match their requirements.

MAST deployed HP Designjet printers at information centers and evacuation points for large-scale paper maps to brief firefighters, residents, media and others. MAST also distributed vital tactical information packs to incoming fire crews.

HP ProLiant servers were deployed at the MAST field site to hold geographic and fire-status information from agencies fighting the blaze.

Rapid Recovery

Once the flames were extinguished, mobile GIS technology helped speed recovery efforts. Field crews carrying HP Tablet PCs gathered information about damaged structures, accessing GIS maps to indicate whether property was damaged, destroyed or unaffected by the fire. Digital photographs and handwritten notes also were stored in the Tablet PCs.

Crews uploaded data from the HP Tablets into MAST's main database. The detailed damage assessments helped officials to quickly secure Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief funds and prepare for flooding and mudslides that could be triggered by winter rains.

Planning and cooperation helped MAST lessen the impact of the San Bernardino blaze. With help from HP and ESRI, MAST used sophisticated GIS technology to support operations throughout the disaster and, in the end, help fire crews respond more effectively.