Photo Credit: Mike Caggiano, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Colorado State University

The Importance of Spatial Data

When responding to wildfires, firefighters often have difficulty figuring out where the fire is, where it’s going, and what’s in its way. This becomes even harder during extreme conditions when visibility is limited or homes and lives are threatened. It can be easy to overlook the importance of maps in the moment, but the right map can provide critical information needed for safe and effective wildfire response.

Recently, while working with fire protection districts in the Upper South Platte Watershed (southwest of Denver), a small collaborative group found that while some fire districts had great maps, many smaller and more rural fire districts didn’t. Many hadn’t created maps themselves, so their maps were outdated, or not user-friendly because they weren’t made with fire response in mind. Further, the maps weren’t standardized between districts, limiting their utility on large incidents or when mutual aid partners were coming into the district to help with a wildfire.

Oversimplified map showing only roads and rivers

Without imagery and topography, it is hard to understand the scale and context of this map. Clearly, this map wasn’t designed with fire response in mind.

So, we set out to develop simple, straightforward base maps for three fire districts. The effort was supported by the Upper South Platte Cohesive Strategy Partnership, but the method is scalable and can easily be used to help fire districts looking to create effective wildfire-response maps.

Making Maps to Improve Wildfire Response

Our goal was to create effective wildfire-response maps using as much existing data as possible. A key in the maps’ longevity was to keep in mind that fire districts, with limited resources, might need to update the maps over time. Our process allows maps to be updated without expert GIS support staff or expensive contractors. We found that much of the data needed to create effective wildfire-response maps were readily available from county planning districts, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the USDA Forest Service.

After collecting the data, the bulk of the work involved reformatting and displaying data and map layers in ways that were more useful for fire response. For example, in one case, a county planning department had already provided the fire district with a map atlas of every home and address in the district, but the grid indexes were too small to be informative for responding to a wildfire, and without the context provided by imagery and topography, it was hard to understand the scale. Clearly, the map wasn’t designed with fire response in mind. Below, we describe the basic workflow that we used to build better wildfire-response maps.

Basic Workflow

  1. First, we reviewed several existing maps from other fire districts, and then picked our favorites to use as templates.
  2. Next, we created a map using ESRI ArcMap and added fire district boundaries, roads, land ownership and address locations to it. One map covered all three adjacent fire districts, which increased the efficiency.
  3. We then labeled important features and added reference layers, including high-resolution aerial imagery, elevation contours and topography hill shades.
  4. After putting together these basic layers, we created a reference grid comprised of rectangular cells covering the entire (three fire district) area, and we then created another reference grid at a finer-scale for critical areas such as subdivisions.

Hints: ESRI provides reduced-cost software for nonprofit organizations and noncommercial uses. Data Driven Pages is a useful tool that allows you to export different extents from the same map, allowing you to create a grid that automates the creation of multiple maps.

  1. Once the maps were complete, we exported georeferenced PDFs which could be loaded onto GPS-enabled devices and used with programs like Avenza.
  2. After several iterations of ground-truthing in the field, and testing on multiple devices, firefighters provided important feedback, and we provided each fire district with updated maps in both printed and electronic formats.
  3. Lastly, we provided the original GIS data and map documents with relative file paths to simplify the updating process in the future.
Wildfire response base maps, labelled "Map Number 11"

A sample map product. Click on the image above for an enlarged version or contact Mike through his FAC Net profile listed at the top of this post for a high-resolution version. Credit: Mike Caggiano, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Colorado State University

  • Create a map covering the entire focus area, and use an index grid and Data Driven Pages to create finer scale tactical maps of subdivisions or specific values at risk.
  • Spatially georeferenced PDFs maps are easily used on portable devices, via a variety of mapping programs and applications, many of which don’t require cellular coverage or Wi-Fi.
  • Maps can be optimized for printing or viewing on electronic devices.
  • Critical layers you may want to include on wildfire-response maps are:
    • Roads, trails and driveways;
    • Land ownership and parcel boundaries;
    • Addresses, homes and other buildings;
    • Streams, rivers and water sources;
    • Fuel treatments and old fire scars;
    • Potential control lines;
    • Tactical features such as locked gates, cisterns, landing zones and/or evacuation centers
  • Keep up-to-date on mapping technology. What is possible now was not possible several years ago, and future applications are likely to increasingly rely on interactive, dynamic and user-driven approaches.
Lessons Learned

This process was a learning experience for everyone involved. As a GIS user, I learned a lot about what fire districts need. We took a slow and iterative approach, ground-truthed the data and map products, and now have field-tested maps ready to use during the next wildfire. So far, the maps have been well-received, and we are now speaking with neighboring fire districts that wish to have their maps updated as well. Maps will never be perfect, but it is fairly easy to create basic maps that enchance situational awareness during wildfire response. Start with something basic, get it into the field, test it and adjust it over time.

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