The Role of GIS in the Aftermath of a Wildfire

Tying satellite imagery to municipal databases can speed up vital damage assessment efforts.

by Adam Stone / August 24, 2016

Geographic information systems (GIS) have assumed a key role in firefighting operations in recent years. Sophisticated GIS-driven mapping can help responders track events and position resources, layering on weather information and demographic data to give rescuers a full picture of the situation on the ground.

GIS may come into play before a fire, for example in helping municipalities mark the exact locations of fire hydrants. During an emergency, geospatial visualizations can help rescuers to plan routes, track the spread of fire and identify communities at immediate risk.

In addition to fulfilling such roles before and during a fire, GIS also can serve an important function for the emergency management community in the aftermath of a blaze. By tying satellite imagery to municipal databases and putting that information in the hands of trained field workers, GIS can dramatically speed up vital damage assessment efforts.

That’s just how it happened during one recent fire in Northern California.

From Weeks Down to Days

In late August the Clayton arson fire added yet another chapter to the long-running saga of devastating California blazes. The conflagration destroyed at least 299 structures, including 189 single-family homes, 40 businesses and a range of other structures such as sheds and smaller outbuildings. More than 4,000 people were evacuated in the course of the fire, which raged for several days.

Even before the smoke had cleared, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) called in an outside contractor to begin assessing the damage. FireWhat of Bend, Ore., rolled in almost immediately with a mobile command center. Starting up a suite of tools powered by GIS provider Esri, its experts began documenting the damage.

Built on the chassis of a 39-foot Freightliner RV, the command post offers multiple workstations and a theater seating space that encompasses three big screens. A touchscreen system runs cloud-based ArcGIS Online software on an HP hyper-converged 250 Series server with 36 terabytes of storage and 16 TB of RAM to deliver a terrain profiler, a property value tool, a damage assessment app and an operations dashboard.

“The teams were collecting damaged structures in the field, and as soon as they hit ‘send,’ the information would pop up on the operations dashboard and on all of our screens,” said FireWhat
CEO Sam Lanier.

With the support of the GIS tools, the team was able to record the status of more than 330 structures by the end of its second day on the ground – a process that in the past might have taken two to three weeks, Lanier said.

A Complex Affair

While emergency managers are obliged to focus their energies foremost on the time of the actual crisis, most realize that the follow-up process can be no less critical. What happens after a fire sets the stage for community rebirth in the long term and, more immediately, it unlocks the financial mechanisms of recovery. Without timely damage assessments, insurance checks don’t get written and federal aid does not flow.

Yet damage assessment is an extraordinarily complex affair. FEMA published a 121-page operations manual on the subject in April 2016. That document devotes 17 full pages just to cataloging the roster of likely players. Damage assessment efforts may include a local or county coordinator, a state or tribal coordinator, a mass care and emergency assistance specialist, any of a half-dozen or more FEMA experts and also experts from the Small Business Administration. FEMA recognizes that it is no small task to walk into a ruined town and try to catalog the extent of the damage, much less begin to put a dollar figure on the loss.

In the absence of GIS and its automated tools, it can be a paper-heavy process. “The whole workflow is a two-page document, so for each home the firefighter has to fill in every single column on that document,” Lanier said. “They also have to carry paper maps: For a single mobile home park, it might require 80 paper maps to show all the individual addresses.”

Reporting requires manual effort too. A firefighter might take pictures of a structure, and then have to return to headquarters to manually associate those images with a map, which in turn might be converted to a spreadsheet by a data processing team. It’s a cumbersome process.

Sophisticated GIS-based tools cut through much of the clutter. In the Clayton fire, the team was able to pull down parcel information from the county and automatically incorporate it into a mobile application. This way, most information fields would automatically pre-populate on a form for any given location. “So instead of the firefighter entering all that information by hand, now we are saying: I am here at this point, with all this information already developed in the county parcels, so there is less effort, less time, and the human error is dramatically reduced,” said Lanier.

This automated workflow also enables emergency planners to make adjustments on the fly. “Now we in the command post can see the information as soon as they are gathering it in the field. If there is a question we can add a yellow star to let them know there is more information that we need, and they can click on that star and see that we need another photo on the north side of the home. That used to take days. Now we can capture that data live,” he said.

Better Information

In its damage assessment handbook, FEMA recognizes the value of GIS not just for the ways in which it can speed the process, but also because of the value inherent in the information it can provide.

GIS tools “can be used to augment damage assessment teams at all levels,” FEMA said. “Remote sensing data collection and analysis can be focused on areas with the most impact and visibly discernible damage, while ground teams could be directed to areas with lesser impacts that would require in-person assessments to make a damage determination.”

When geospatial analysis is put in the hands of a capable ground team, “more of the impacted area can be assessed at a faster rate than traditional ground team methods. In some instances, the geospatial damage assessment may be capable of replacing ground assessment teams, especially in circumstances when damage assessments need to be conducted on a timeline that would not allow the use of traditional ground methods,” FEMA noted.

In urging the use of GIS, FEMA points emergency planners to a range of possible sources for data and software capabilities, representing agencies and organizations from across government and the private sector. These include: 

  • State or tribal governments
  • FEMA geospatial information officer (GIO)/regional geospatial staff
  • FEMA Modeling Task Force (MOTF)
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)
  • U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Private contractors.

Data that has been collected and archived in advance of a disaster, known as static GIS, can form a critical baseline element for any damage assessment. This information may take the form of population density maps, demographic data and property parcel information. Planners also may incorporate digital elevation models, flood plain data, critical infrastructure details and similar factors in their GIS efforts, FEMA said.

After the fact, GIS can provide high-quality information on a range of factors influencing damage assessments. This includes storm track visualizations, high water lines or flood depth, road closures and infrastructure reports, property damage from aerial analysis and other forms of post-event imagery.

Even with this broad range of available assets, FEMA acknowledges some limitations when it comes to putting GIS to work in the wake of a disaster.

Weather can challenge data collection efforts even after the brunt of a storm has passed. In some areas, critical GIS feeders such as detailed parcel and population data are not available. And some environments are just not amenable to the tools of GIS: In urban areas, geospatial analysis can’t refine the damage level by apartment unit, while in rural areas, steep terrain and heavy tree canopies can limit the effectiveness of GIS.

Despite the limitations, experts say, there is much that GIS can do to enhance the damage assessment process.

“GIS is an ideal tool for streamlining recovery operations,” said Russ Johnson, Esri’s director of Public Safety and Homeland/National Security. “Recovery is difficult, time consuming, and essential to determine damage, costs and reimbursement. With the use of mobile GIS applications, recovery personnel are able to identify damage status and rapidly report that information to a central location.”

In the wake of an event, GIS can do more than just enable the rapid documentation of damage. Sophisticated mapping can help emergency managers determine the best locations to position public assistance, Johnson said. GIS can also help them to identify alternative transportation routes, making it possible for the private sector to return to normal functioning as quickly as possible.

That’s a key phrase: as quickly as possible. After a major event like the Clayton fire, or any other large-scale disaster for that matter, speed is of the essence.

Among other issues, delays in damage assessments may put firefighters at risk by forcing them to remain on scene in a dangerous environment. Moreover, timely damage assessments are a key to the recovery process. “People want to get back into their home and see what is going on,” Lanier said. “The insurance companies also want to do their own assessments before they write checks, and they cannot do that until the formal preliminary assessment is done.”

At the same time, responders must balance haste against an imperative to be extremely accurate. In the case of the Clayton fire, “this was a criminal case. If someone is going to be charged with arson, he is going to be responsible for all the associated costs, so it becomes important to have very accurate intelligence,” said Lanier. Assessors are not just calculating damages: They are potentially collecting legal evidence.

GIS can help to balance these forces, giving emergency teams the tools they need to be both quick and accurate, which can ultimately help to get assistance on the ground faster in support of emergency responders trying to organize recovery efforts. “In order to justify paying for shelters, to justify paying for relief housing, you need to properly document everything before the Stafford Act language can come into play,” Lanier said. “When assessments are done more quickly, you also can build a much better picture of what the recovery need is going to be going forward.”

One final benefit to applying GIS to post-event documentation: better documentation. In the past, Lanier said, emergency responders have faced issues when homeowners have come back to claim that their properties were never assessed or were improperly inventoried. When field workers can tap automated GIS tools to feed their work back to the command post in real time, the chance for such incidents diminishes. “Now we have a live tracking mechanism to show an actual track log of where each person was, and when they assessed the property. That now becomes part of the legal record,” Lanier said.

Even as the embers cooled in Northern California, Esri executives were turning their attention to another crisis, using GIS to help first responders manage the aftermath of Louisiana’s catastrophic flooding. “We are working hand in hand with them to look at where the evacuation routes need to be, how the supplies need to travel,” Johnson said.

This kind of on-scene intelligence falls neatly in line with the strengths GIS also has demonstrated before, during and after major crises: the ability to capture critical layers of data, to display it in a meaningful way, and to get it into the hands of first responders looking to drive meaningful action.