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Data Sharing Leads to Powerful Tools for Fighting Fire

The Wildland Fire Decision Support System uses geospatial data and predictions of fire spread to inform decisions on wildland fires.

by Andrew Bailey, Nancy von Meyer and Ben Butler / December 3, 2013
High Park Fire wildland fire crews at the Incident Command Post in Fort Collins, Colo., in June 2012. Michael Rieger/FEMA

Once considered a problem for remote western forests, wildfire is now routinely affecting communities. People regularly build homes in wildland areas known to firefighters as “the WUI,” short for wildland-urban interface and pronounced woo-eee. Fire managers must be able to identify and locate homes at risk in the WUI in order to successfully fight fire there. It’s no secret that wildland fires have become larger and more destructive over the last two decades. More than 9 million acres were burned in 2012, and the 10-year average acreage for wildfire stands at 7 million annually. A host of problems are associated with fighting wildfires in this environment. Wildland fires adjacent to populated areas are more expensive to suppress, tend to involve multiple jurisdictions and often damage private property and homes. Readily combustible landscaping and building materials, household hazardous materials, utility lines and limited road access puts firefighters at higher risk in these areas too.

Technology and Information

As fire managers make difficult decisions about how to manage fires, balance resources and expenditures, and keep firefighters safe, new tools are helping to even the odds. The Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) is one such tool. WFDSS is a Web-based application managed by the Wildland Fire Management Research, Development and Application (WFM RD&A) program. WFDSS uses geospatial data and predictions of fire spread to inform decisions on wildland fires. Fire spread models generate a predicted footprint showing likely fire spread over a specified time. The model footprint is used to query other spatially registered data including representations of private and public building locations, land ownership, critical infrastructure, and important animal and plant habitat. The resulting values are mapped and displayed to provide strategic situational awareness to incident commanders and agency administrators. An accurate accounting of the number and approximate location of structures near a fire is prerequisite to good decision-making.

Local Roots

The best data on where people live is maintained by local governments in the form of cadastral and situs address data. Cadastral, or tax parcel, data describes land ownership boundaries associated with records detailing the status, value, ownership and other attributes for land. Situs address data describes the physical location of a structure, either through addressing along a street network or using geographic coordinates. Both cadastral and situs data can be used to locate and map values at risk during an emergency incident. Since there are more than 3,000 local and county governments in the United States that create and manage these data, the magnitude of the data acquisition effort led to a partnership between wildland fire management agencies and the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) Cadastral Subcommittee. Starting in 2006, this partnership has developed business cases for the use of parcel data in wildland fire applications, applied subcommittee data standards for wildland fire needs, and established producers for aggregating locally maintained data with state coordination. The Cadastral Subcommittee has reached out to local county assessors, planners, natural resources and GIS staffs to acquire and standardize county geospatial records. The subcommittee also worked with state GIS and department of revenue coordinators to establish sustainable data aggregation and standardization procedures.

Collaborating for Success

Using the subcommittee’s best practices (published on the subcommittee’s outreach pages), authoritative local data can be consolidated by trusted state data stewards and provided to WFM RD&A staff for incorporation into WFDSS. Using the tax parcel information along with essential attributes, parcel points are constructed for the center of each parcel. Using the improvement value, use codes and other information, the parcels with structures are identified and these points are provided to the WFDSS. These points are known as “building clusters” and represent general structure locations. In situations where local governments have situs address data from GIS-capable E-911, public safety answering point or building footprint data, more precise location of the structures can be identified and attributes on use and owner type can be related to the points from the parcel data. The structure points further improve situational awareness of structure locations. The standardized point data with essential attributes are available for analysis by wildland fire managers through WFDSS.

When the structure and cluster points are displayed with the predicted fire footprint, the local jurisdictions can immediately see the value their data adds in improving decision-making and assessing wildland fire risk to property and homes.

Success during Fire Season

The summer wildfire season of 2012 will be long remembered along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. A pair of uncharacteristically large and damaging early season wildfires burned in and adjacent to the communities of Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. While structure data was not available to WFDSS at the outset of these fires, quick collaboration between county emergency and tax assessment staff, the Cadastral Subcommittee members and WFM RD&A fire data managers ensured that the data could become available quickly. A dispersed team made up of members from government at the local (both city and county), state and federal level as well as private industry were able to mobilize using the protocols and standards built over several years to find, assemble, standardize and load data.

In the case of the High Park fire near Fort Collins, the data were made available to fire managers within two days of fire ignition and began providing situational awareness information for fire managers within hours of receipt. The High Park fire provided the “spark” to initiate collection of other counties in Colorado as well. When the Waldo Canyon fire broke out just a week later west of Colorado Springs, data on values at risk was already loaded and ready for analysis. The data proved useful during the incident for setting management action points, determining fire strategy and planning evacuations. Federal, state and local Colorado Springs emergency managers were able to gain access to the data and tools in WFDSS, seeing homes likely to be impacted by the spreading fire hours ahead of fire arrival.

The relationships built during the 2012 fire season bore fruit the very next year when the Black Forest wildfire threatened communities east of Colorado Springs and the Royal Gorge fire burned outside the community of Canyon City. Agreements were quickly struck and updated county and municipality data were made available in the WFDSS application within 24 hours of the fire’s start. A three-year agreement signed following the incidents will ensure that El Paso County, Colo., data will be updated in the WFDSS application annually, and will be available not just for incident response but for incident pre-planning by the federal land management agencies.

Get Involved

As this summer’s fire season has passed, there’s work to do to prepare for the next one. The growing economic recovery of the past year has led to a resumption of home construction in many WUI areas, which will lead to an increase in the number of homes at risk of wildfire. Cadastral data must be updated to show the new values, and the WFM RD&A will work to incorporate that data into WFDSS. There are wildfire-prone areas of the country that still lack cadastral data or lack policies that allow easy sharing of cadastral data with other government agencies. Collaboration among local, state and federal emergency managers is crucial to being prepared when the next wildland fire occurs in or adjacent to a community.

As an emergency manager, take the opportunity to find out if your community shares its cadastral and situs data freely, or is able and willing to share data under agreement with other government agencies for emergency management activities. As a cadastral data manager, assess your data documentation, metadata and sharing policies. Search out your state’s cadastral and situs/addressing working groups and plug in. Getting these data sets before a disaster or incident occurs can mean the difference between informed decision-making and educated guesswork, or natural disaster and tragedy.

Andrew Bailey, Wildland Fire Management Research, Development and Application Program, Department of Interior Office of Wildland Fire, Boise, Idaho.

Nancy von Meyer, Fairview Industries, Pendleton, S.C.

Ben Butler, Wildland Fire Management Research, Development and Application Program, USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Boise, Idaho


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