Series of articles about wildfire, by Miller-McCune

The Miller-McCune web site has started a five-part series about wildfire.


Here is a brief excerpt from Part 1, which covers at length many different options and technologies for collecting and distributing real-time or near-real time intelligence about going fires.

The Viz Lab is a large, dimly lit, war room dominated by huge, computer-generated maps projected onto dark walls. Its tool kit includes an array of links to information and imaging feeds gathered by satellites, airplanes, unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) and helicopters from sources like NASA and Google Maps. The lab is bent on delivering real-time (or pretty darned close) computer mapping and imaging to a wildfire’s first responders so they’ll know just what the blaze is doing, where and when.

Data fusion is the name of the game at the San Diego State University’s Immersive Visualization Center — layering sophisticated weather, atmospheric, smoke and fire data and images onto, say, a topographical Google Earth map. It provides an illuminating picture for emergency operations chiefs who urgently need to pinpoint trouble spots and interpret fast-changing developments.

Once, fire perimeters were indicated by simple black lines on old-fashioned land maps — best guesses made from the field without benefit even of GPS. Now, satellites or aircraft use “look down” technology to create 3-D topographical images of what lies below dark, billowing smoke. Tools distinguish live from burned vegetation and show in various colors rapidly updated information on a blaze’s “hot spots” and accelerating or subsiding dangers.

“It’s absolutely dramatically more useful,” explained Eric Frost, co-director of the Viz Lab.

The Viz Lab normally focuses on geographic information systems research for homeland security and disaster relief. But it also proactively tracks everything from brush fires on its doorstep to natural disasters worldwide. Last February, for example, it helped map wildfires in Australia that killed 173 people. “It takes less than half a second to go from here to Australia on fiber optics,” Frost noted.

Here is a video about an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, being developed by San Diego State University. The researchers have been working with firefighters in an attempt to show them its usefulness on fires.

Federal wildland firefighter pay bill introduced in Congress

On Thursday, January 21, Representative Bob Filner (D, California) introduced into the House of Representatives a bill, the “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, that would affect the pay, retirement age, and fireline liability of federal wildland firefighters. Here are some key points of the bill, which was given the number H.R. 4488 (the full text is HERE):

  • Retirement age: The bill would change the mandatory retirement age for a wildland firefighter from 57 to 65.
  • Outsourcing: It adds protection from outsourcing for the five major federal land management agencies, the USFS, BLM, NPS, USF&WS, and the BIA.
  • Wildland Firefighter series: It requires that the Office of Personnel Management develop a “separate and distinct wildland firefighter occupational series that will more accurately reflect the variety of duties performed by wildland firefighters.” Anyone who is currently in the 401 series would have the option of transferring to the new Wildland Firefighter series.
  • Portal-to-Portal: $25 million would be authorized to begin a pilot program in which firefighters would be paid for “all time the firefighter is away from their official duty station assigned to an emergency incident, in support of an emergency incident, or pre-positioned for emergency response”. Standard overtime rules would apply and employees would be exempt from premium pay limitations. The pilot program would begin “with the 2010 wildfire season”. The Department of Agriculture and Interior would participate in the pilot program which would not exceed three calendar years.
  • Non-Federal resources: The bill requires that during the pilot program there would be reductions in the amount of fire suppression funds expended on non-Federal fire suppression resources.
  • Hazardous Duty Pay would be treated as part of base pay for retirement purposes. And the following is a little vague, but it appears that firefighters would receive hazard duty pay for all the time they are “on the fire line of any wildfire or prescribed fuel treatment burn or fire“, regardless of the control status.
  • Benefits for Seasonal Wildland Firefighters: there are some changes related to the availability of life insurance for seasonal wildland firefighters.
  • Buy Back of Previous Firefighting Time: there are changes related to the buy back of work time and how it relates to retirement.
  • “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability”: The bill requires that for every fatality to a firefighter or other employee of  the U.S. Forest Service and now the four Dept. of Interior land management agencies due to an entrapment or “burrower”, the department’s Inspector General (IG) shall conduct an investigation. This requirement has been in effect for the U.S. Forest Service, only, since the 2002 Cantwell-Hastings bill, and has resulted in witch hunts, attorney fees, and jail time for firefighters who make mistakes on the fireline. The bill would repeal the provisions of the 2002 bill regarding the IG investigations for USFS fatalities but replaces it with similar requirements that would apply to the USFS and the Dept. of Interior wildland firefighters. The bill does, however, require that IG investigators “have the necessary training, skills, and experience to competently conduct the investigation”, but does not specify what training, experience, and skills are required. It goes on to say  “The investigations and accompanying reports shall be used by all land management agency fire programs to build upon the concept of lessons learned from the fire event. It is not the intent of Congress that the investigations and reports would be used to find fault or place blame for a fatality, but rather to recognize that wildland firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation and to reduce the number of fatalities from due to wildfire entrapment or burrower.”

I will have to assume that a term that repeatedly shows up in the bill, “burrower”, is a typo, and they really mean “burnover”. An unexpected consequence of spell-check run by an intern?

It is interesting, ironic, and insulting that the portion of the bill that is named “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability” actually adds to and worsens the liability problems for wildland firefighters, spreading the IG witch hunts further, now into the Department of Interior.

That section is worrisome. I don’t see the need to double down on the ill-conceived requirement of IG investigations on fatalities. Originally thought in 2002 that it would enhance safety for the U.S. Forest Service, it has had the unintended consequence of making it difficult or impossible to glean any lessons learned, since firefighters involved in a burrower burnover or major accident are now lawyering-up and refusing to speak to investigators.

The simple statement in the bill that the intent is not to “find fault or place blame” will not prevent the IG’s law enforcement officers, fresh out of Basic Wildland Firefighter training, who will be conducting investigations, from doing just that–finding fault and placing blame. That is what they do every day in their law enforcement job.

And more firefighters may go to jail for mistakes made in the heat of a wildfire battle.

The intent of the 2002 bill, now law, was to enhance safety, but it did the opposite. Intent means nothing. Intent is crap.

The bill has been referred to four committees:

House Oversight and Government Reform
House Natural Resources
House Agriculture
House Armed Services

The bill has only been introduced in the House and referred to committees. Other than than that no action has been taken. But this is a huge and very positive step, and much credit must be given to Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association who has been pursuing this legislation for years.

The best case scenario is that the bill will make it out of the four committees unscathed (except for the removal of the Liability section), will be approved by the full House, similar action will occur in the Senate, and then will be signed by the President.  The worst case is that the bill will die in the committees and never receive consideration in the full House. Or there could be something in between, with the text of the bill being changed or watered down.

If you have an interest in this bill you should visit the web sites of the four committees listed above and see if a Representative from your state sits on one or more of them. If so, a letter or a phone call to their offices could make a difference.

Wildfire Today supports this bill, but only if the “Sec. 8. Firefighter Liability” portion is removed, or completely rewritten to eliminate the Inspector General offices from the process and specify in their place a real professional-quality Serious Accident Review Team composed of subject matter experts, not cops.

The cops in the IGs’ offices should not be asked to step far out of their training and experience to make judgments about wildland fire behavior, strategy, tactics, and human factors. Nor should firefighters investigate the fatality of a law enforcement officer. It takes decades to become an expert in the field of wildland fire. It takes longer to become a Type 1 Incident Commander on a fire than it does to become a brain surgeon.

You can follow the progress of the bill HERE.

UPDATE at 9:40 MT, January 26, 2010:

One of the folks who commented, Michael, asked if the bill applied to AD firefighters. I pasted more information about that in a response to his comment below in the “Responses”, but to me this question is still up in the air. There is a possibility that nothing in this bill would apply to AD firefighters OR “militia” employees.

If that is the case, it is a shame for a number of reasons. If it did apply to them, it would have had a very positive effect on the number of people that would have made themselves available for fire and incident management team assignments. Wildfire Today covered HERE some of the problems caused by a lack of participation on incident management teams.

Live Discussion, Thursday night

We will have a live discussion about this legislation Thursday night, featuring Casey Judd, Business Manager of the FWFSA. More information is HERE.

NWCG to re-think Incident Management Teams

According to a memo sent out by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group on January 15, 2010, they are going to: and analyze alternatives addressing the appropriate number, type, and configuration of the national IMTs (Type 1, Type 2, and Area Command)

The reasons given in a brief memo include the following:

Our current workforce management and succession planning for wildfire response is not sustainable for the future. We recognize that the increasing fire season length is negatively impacting all of our agencies abilities to meet their missions due to personnel serving on teams and having less time to accomplish their normal job duties. We must update our militia based model to better address future incident management demands. NWCG also needs to ensure line officer expectations are adequately addressed for incident management.

A person might wonder why, other than the vague reasons stated above, they are going to consider “updating the incident management business model”, as the memo says. Perhaps the recent disbanding of California Incident Incident Management Team 3 for the stated reason of the lack of a qualified Incident Commander, and difficulties filling positions on teams in general, could be some of the reasons.

The 2009 Type 1 IMTeam assignment list and rotation has already been replaced with a 2010 version, but I believe there were only a handful of Type 1 team assignments in 2009. In a normal year, a team might get two or three 2-week assignments, making it an inconvenience for a team member who does not normally work in fire management. The home unit can get a severe case of heartburn when a person’s absence for a total of four to six weeks causes targets to be missed.

NIMO teamsOne way to mitigate this would be to create more National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) teams, but with the teams having more than just the seven positions as they are currently structured. When I first heard five years ago that year-round IMTeams were going to be created, I thought it was a great idea until I found out the teams would only consist of seven people each.

From Wikipedia:

A group in itself does not necessarily constitute a team. Teams normally have members with complementary skills and generate synergy through a coordinated effort which allows each member to maximize his or her strengths and minimize his or her weaknesses.

A lot of time in Advanced Incident Management (I-520) is spent on the concept of teams, teamwork, building an effective team, and behavior in a team.  One of the primary reasons IMTeams exist is that the personnel on a team train together and deploy on multiple incidents over a period of years, converting a GROUP into a well-functioning TEAM. But if a team of five is assigned to a major incident, they will have to order, usually blindly, an additional 40-70 additional people and hope for the best. And if they are lucky, near the end of their 2-week assignment some of them may have adapted to become part a team. Then they go home, never to assemble that team again.

Maybe I’m a little slow, but I fail to see what having five seven-person teams does to improve the management of large, complex incidents. Having them show up to look over the shoulders of teams managing Type 1, 2, and 3 fires as they did in 2009 generated complaints.

Am I the only one saying the NIMO emperor is not wearing any clothes? Maybe not. Here are some excerpts from the notes from the California Operations Committee and Incident Commander Meeting, October 27, 2009:

NIMO was mobilized for support to the agency administrator and then the role changed to help the team. NIMO’s role in-between line officer and IC really impacted the relationship/communication between agency administrator and IC and unified command with CalFire added a complication. Would like CWCG direction regarding how NIMO is to be used in CA.


…team lost effectiveness working under NIMO and communications were an issue. Need to communicate NIMO protocols upon mobilization.


Often times the intent of mobilizing a NIMO team is to help the situation and in fact, they often times created confusion, blocked communication, and hindered efficiency.

In a perfect world, we would have five, 45-person year-round NIMO teams, but it is unlikely we’ll ever see that happen. Increasing the size of the NIMO teams to at least 25 people could result in them having key positions down to the Unit Leader and Division Supervisor level reliably filled, and would maintain a decent-sized core Team that could, after ordering the additional 15-45 people needed for a large, complex incident, function as a Team. Then they could serve as an Incident Management Team, rather than second-guessing other teams and getting in the way.

I am sure that the NIMO teams do some good work. According to the only *accomplishment report on the NIMO site which covers portions of 2006-2007, the teams get involved in activities other than fire, including “training, quality assurance, fuels management, fuels implementation, fire and resource management support, NWCG projects, cost containment, and leadership development”. They must be too busy to post any recent accomplishment reports.

*UPDATE March 11, 2010:

A new Accomplishment Report covering 2008 has been added to the NIMO web site since we wrote this article on January 22, 2010.

Satellite photos and iPhone mapping

If you are like me, you enjoy looking at maps and satellite photos. Today I became aware of two developments in those categories; one is very new, and the other has been around for a while but is new to me.

Google makes high-resolution satellite images of Haiti available

Google announced on Wednesday January 20 that they now have high-resolution (15cm) satellite imagery of the area in Haiti that was damaged by the earthquake. These 15cm satellite photographs are amazing, and are the highest-resolution satellite photos I have ever seen. You can see individual people in the images.

The images were acquired on Sunday January 17 and can be seen on Google Maps as well as Google Earth. The objective of Google was to provide information for relief efforts in Haiti. Some of the images are partially degraded by smoke from fires burning in the city, but most of them are very clear.

Here are some examples of the new satellite photos.

Structural damage
Structural damage
An encampment of survivors
An encampment of survivors
A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 at the airport.

The harbor in Haiti. You can see one of the cranes used for unloading cargo has fallen into the ocean. Cracks in the pavement or ground can bee seen in the upper right.
The harbor in Haiti. You can see that one of the cranes used for unloading cargo has fallen into the ocean. Cracks in the pavement or ground can be seen in the upper right.

The presidential palace can be seen on Google Maps HERE.

EveryTrail, mapping for iPhone and Android cell phones

EveryTrail looks really good on paper, I mean, on their web site. In theory it is supposed to:

  • Map your trip route while you move
  • Add trip photos to your map instantly
  • Share trips right from your phone
  • Find and follow trips from other travelers
Photo: EveryTrail
Photo: EveryTrail

An application like that, in theory, would be very handy for making a quick and dirty map of a fire or a disaster area. You could walk or drive around the incident with your cell phone mapping the perimeter while taking geo-tagged photos, then distribute the information to anyone with access to the Internet. Or a crew could map a spot fire or any additional spread of a fire and send the data back to the Situation Unit, WITH photos.

Versions have been developed for the iPhone and Blackberry, as well as Android and Windows Mobile devices.

I tried it on a Droid phone running the Android operating system and was very much under-whelmed. In fact it is the WORST software program I have ever seen. It crashed when I tried to take a photo. It crashed when I tried to save a trip. You can’t see the map when you are recording a trip. On some of the screens the text is dark gray on a black background, making it very, very difficult to read the text.

The web site promises that a revised Android version “is on the horizon”. I would say don’t waste your money at least until a new version is out, but thankfully it is free. The iPhone version costs $3.99.

Maybe the iPhone version is more mature and works better. They recently came out with Version 3 which gets pretty good reviews in the iTunes store. Earlier versions received poor reviews. The Android version has pretty bad reviews in the Android “Market”.

But apparently some folks have gotten it to work pretty well, or at least good enough to play with it and make drawings.


More information about GPS drawings can be found at the EveryTrail blog, and at the New York Times.

Let me know if you have used EveryTrail, and what your impressions were.

Thanks Judy

UPDATE: Feb. 2, 2010

My Tracks

I found out about another similar mapping application developed by Google, called My Tracks. It works on the Android cell phone operating system and is free. It does not have some of the bells and whistles that EveryTrail, has, but I am thinking that it will at least work. I just downloaded it onto my Motorola Droid, but have not had a chance to use it yet.

Here are some excerpts from the My Tracks site:

With My Tracks you can record GPS tracks and visualize your hiking, running, biking or any other activity while watching live performance statistics. My Tracks makes it easy to archive your training history with Google Docs and Google My Maps, and share your activities with friends and the world.

To share, email, or post your data on the Internet:

After recording a track, press the Options button on the bottom right of the map and then select Share with friends… Select how you want to share the track: a) as a link to a Google My Map (you will be prompted to upload the track to Google My Maps if you have not already done so), b) as a GPX file in an e-mail attachment, or c) as a KML file in an e-mail attachment. You can also send an e-mail with a link to your My Map by going to on your computer. Select the map and then click Link on the right side of the Google Maps web site.

The ability to save the data as a GPX or KML file could be very useful for firefighters who want to send an updated fire perimeter, or fragment thereof, to dispatch or the Situation Unit. And of course posting the map on the Internet could be handy as well. You can designate the posted maps to be visible or invisible to the general public.

As far as I know, the software will not calculate the area of a polygon, but I have sent an email to the developers asking that question.

IMTeam member in Haiti, requesting funds for medical supplies

I received a message from Cindy Schiffer, a District Ranger on the George Washington – Jefferson National Forests in Blacksburg, Virginia, explaining that a person who has been on the Type 1 Incident Management Teams in the Southern Geographic Area is volunteering in Haiti assisting victims of the earthquake. Their group is very much in need of medical supplies. Here is the message from Ms. Schiffer:

I just got a call from Peter Dybing. He has worked on both the blue and red teams in supply. He is currently in Haiti, volunteering with St. Croix Rescue. (He lives in the Virgin Islands and is an EMT with St. Croix Rescue.) There is a small group of them – one physician and 6 EMTs, with a few more planning to join them. He said they are treating people in the street who are noncritical patients. He said the hospitals are completely overwhelmed and there are many people in the streets with major wounds and lots of infections (I’ll spare you the details but it is clear that without treatment many of these people could easily slip into critical condition.) They are cleaning the open wounds, treating them with antibiotics, and bandaging them up until they can heal to the point that the wounds can be dealt with in a more permanent manner.

They have run out of medical supplies and are looking for financial support for the incoming staff to bring more supplies with them. They are working with a group whose website is ““. He said the web site isn’t updated to discuss the work they are now doing in Haiti because everyone involved in the organization is now in Haiti trying to help.

There is a place on the web site called “donate now“. I told Peter I would share this need with folks on the teams and on the Forest in case anyone would like to support them by donating to the organization.


I replied to Cindy, asking if I could post her message here. I also asked if someone donates by credit card, can the group in Haiti access the money quickly enough to make a difference before some of those minor injuries turn into life-threatening conditions?

Her reply:

I couldn’t answer your question so I called Peter back and I think the info he shared is worth passing to all…Everyone working with him is doing so as a volunteer, no one is receiving any compensation. They are checking the donations to the web site daily and wire transferring the funds to the Dominican Republic. Then they drive over the border about every other day to buy supplies (I would guess that more funds available would probably mean less trips). All the funds go directly to medical supplies or the gasoline to get it – zero overhead or administrative costs. They have set up a field clinic. Many of the wounds are substantial and infected so every hour is critical.

I tested the donation system and sent them a contribution for their “General Fund”. I paid with a credit card, and the system worked very well. This is an excellent way to directly help people, and we know that the medical supplies will not be delayed, siphoned off by corporations, or sit on the tarmac at a tiny overwhelmed airport.