Progression maps for 5 currently active fires

At least five very large fires are currently active in the United States:

  • Gap in northern California,
  • Pioneer in central Idaho,
  • Maple in Yellowstone National Park,
  • Soberanes on the central coast of California, and,
  • Beaver Creek in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.

Below we have progression maps of these fires (in that order).

We recently found out about a new website that has developed a very impressive mapping service for wildfires. It was the source of these maps. The site not only shows the locations, but in some cases for large fires it displays the perimeters — which can be animated to see the growth or progression of the fire over time. They have this information going back to 2003. It is on the EcoWest website and was created by a collaboration of the Sea to Snow company and the Bill Lance Center for the American West at Stanford University.

The perimeter data is dependant on what is made available by the agencies managing the fire, so there is not always a perimeter for every day.

You can minimize the Description box by clicking the down arrow at the top-right of the box.

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Tactical mapping and photography apps

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now using the United States National Grid (USNG) as its standard geographic reference system and is encouraging its use among their partners. The agency will use the USNG for deployment and tracking of resources, in their Incident Action Plans, and in NIMS-related programs, guidance, and training. FEMA will encourage all fire departments to use it and the system will be included in the curriculums at the National Fire Academy.

The USNG is a system for describing the location of a place on Earth. You can also use longitude and latitude, or Section, Township, and Range, or one of many other systems. The advantage of USNG is that it is very user friendly. If you know the general location already, for example on a particular wildfire, the location can be communicated with only six digits. It is far easier than using degrees, minutes and seconds, twice — for longitude and then again for latitude.

So with the thought that the wildland fire agencies will eventually begin using the USNG, I starting looking around for inexpensive, user friendly apps for smart phones.

First I looked for an app that could take a photo and automatically superimpose the location on the image in the USNG format. This can be very useful for firefighters to document conditions, conduct investigations, or to send near-real time intelligence to the Incident Command Post or dispatch offices. It could be especially handy for airborne firefighters.

I found that Solocator could meet the criteria, but the standard version, at $0.99, required an additional in-app purchase of $2.99 to enable the use of the USNG, raising the total cost to about $4. Not a huge sum, but $3 more than I expected to spend. If you don’t need the USNG, you can get by for $0.99.

It is a powerful app with many features and is user friendly except for the fact that to get to the settings, you have to swipe left or right from the page you see when you open the program. And there is no indication anywhere in the app, in the description in the app store, or on the developer’s web site that you have to swipe to see the settings.

As seen in the image below, you can place on a photo taken with the app the location (using one of many location systems), the direction the camera was facing, elevation, date, and time. The photo below has the location in USNG format, in this case beginning with 13T which is the zone that includes parts of SD, ND, CO, MT, WY, and NE. (National map with grid zones.) You can optionally include a watermark on each photo at the bottom-left, which could be the name of the fire or project, in your choice of three colors for the text. The app produces two images: one with the data and one with no visible data.


The photos you take can be emailed directly from the app.

If a hotshot crew needs air support quickly, they don’t want to fumble around with a cumbersome app — they just want the six digits as quickly as possible.

I looked for a mapping app with:

  1. GPS,
  2. maps that can be viewed without internet coverage,
  3. USNG,
  4. navigation, and
  5. the ability to determine the size of a polygon (or fire).

There are a crap ton of apps that are built around GPS, and browsing through them is overwhelming.

I looked at MilGPS which displays your location in HUGE characters. This would be excellent for just getting your coordinates so they can be passed on to someone else. But the app does not have off-line map capability, and I don’t believe it can determine acreage. It is also a little on the pricey side, at $10. I didn’t purchase it.

I downloaded Avenza PDF Maps, which is much cheaper: $0.00. It comes with no maps, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of maps that can be installed, with many of them being free, such as USGS topographical maps and U.S. Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Maps, all of which can be downloaded directly from the app. (UPDATE 12/24/2015: As Robert pointed out, PDF Maps is only free for personal use. Any commercial, governmental, academic or other non-personal use requires the purchase of a commercial license.)

PDF mapsI was hoping to find a mapping tool that could determine acreage by automatically recording your location as you walked around a fire, but I don’t believe PDF Maps can do this. It appears that as you walk you have to periodically push a button to find your location and then another button to record that point. The more points you record, the more accurate the result. You can also stand in one place and move the crosshairs over the map and record points to measure an area — a method that would be less accurate than walking the perimeter, but it’s a quick and dirty method of coming up with an acreage figure.

PDF Maps meets all five of the requirements listed above. I have a feeling that many wildland firefighters use this app, and hopefully they can correct me if I’m wrong and provide more details about their experiences.

There are probably many other apps that can perform these functions. There might even be one that can take photos like Solocator AND meet the five mapping requirements.

Let us know in a comment what apps you use for mapping and photo documentation — and what you like and don’t like about them.

UPDATE, December 23, 2015: At Al’s recommendation, we tried out another photography program, Theodolite. The data on the screen does not eat up as much real estate as Solocator, but we could not find a way to put a note or watermark on the photo, such as the name of a fire or project. At iTunes it is priced today at $5.99, which is 40 percent off the regular price. The app can display the location in numerous formats, including USNG with 10, 100, or 1,000 meter precision.

Photo taken with Theodolite, at the Fall River by Bill Gabbert.

Additional lessons that could be learned regarding the Yarnell Hill Fire

One of the presentations last week at the International Association of Wildland Fire conference, “Managing Fire, Understanding Ourselves”, concerned additional lessons that could be learned from the 19 fatalities on the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. Specifically, use of the term “MAYDAY” and the National Grid mapping system.

Most of the following presentation was prepared by Al Studt, of Cape Canaveral Fire and Rescue. It was presented at the conference by wildland fire consultant Richard McCrea. It is used here with their permission.

To  view the slides, click the triangular play button and allow them to automatically advance every 10 seconds, or manually click the right arrow when you want to view the next slide.

NPS maps and a few USFS maps available on your hand held device

Today the U.S. Forest Service published this on Twitter:

Being fond of maps, I had to check it out. The link takes you to a USFS website where they advise you to download an app for your smart phone or tablet. For Apple users go to iTunes and search for “Avenza PDF Maps”. At the Google Play Store for Android folks it is named “PDF Maps“. The app is free.

While there are many ways to obtain digital maps, one advantage of this system is that you don’t have to have a connection to the internet to use it. If you’re out of cell phone coverage and your device has a GPS receiver, it can pinpoint your location on the georeferenced map, but you have to download the maps first.

Since the USFS was promoting their maps on this app we checked to see what is available. They are sorted by region number. If you don’t know the number of the region you’re interested in, you will have great difficulty finding the map you need. Only three USFS regions have any maps listed. Their Northern Region, Region 1, has five, and they are all Motor Vehicle Use maps (MVU). The MVU maps are not pleasing to the eye and are not fun to use. The Rocky Mountain Region, R-2, does not list any maps under USFS/ R2, but if you search for “Black Hills” for example, a number of MVU maps show up for the Black Hills National Forest. The USFS Intermountain Region, R-4, has nine maps, all MVU maps for the Boise National Forest. The MVU maps are priced exactly what they are worth, $0.00. The California Region, R-5, has 33 maps listed. They all appear to be their standard visitor map and are probably very useful. They are priced at $4.99 each.

When you are looking for a map, not all of them are located where you would expect and there may be many more USFS maps scattered around the app in nooks and crannies. Searching for a map name might work better than drilling down by Category/Vendor/Subcategory, such as Parks, Forest, & Grasslands/US Forest Service R1/All Subcategories.

The USFS and Avenza need to fix this.

PDF Maps, Yosemite National Park.
Screenshot of PDF Maps on a Nexus 7, Yosemite National Park.

The National Park Service on the other hand has 127 maps available and they are all free. They are not extremely detailed. The Yosemite map (see screen shot above) appears to be a duplicate of the map you are given when you enter the park. It has roads, trails, communities, creeks, bodies of water, and facilities, but not much else. If you’re hiking in the park and get lost, you could pull out your smart phone and figure out where you are, even if you don’t have cell coverage.

There are thousands of other maps available as well. For example, USGS topographical maps at 1:24,000 scale are free, while there is a fee for the 1:100,000 versions. I saw some BLM 1:100,000 maps that were priced at $2.99.

The app can also measure distance and acreage, but it’s rather cumbersome. I was hoping that it could track your location every few seconds as you walked around an area, say, a fire, and it would calculate the size. But instead of tracking your location automatically, you have to move the cross hair to your indicated location at multiple intervals, click, and keep doing that until you’ve circumnavigated the fire.

There are no instructions that come with the app, and I could not figure out how to do the acreage calculation. The user interface, on this Android Version 1.0.2, is not super intuitive.  After a fair amount of searching I found some help on Avenza’s website. (Click on iOS or Android.)

What app do you use to compute acreage?

Here is the way the app is described at Google Play:
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Better satellite imagery enables improved wildfire mapping and growth predictions

Higher resolution imagery becoming available from satellites will enable more accurate mapping and spread prediction of wildfires.

Higher resolution imagery becoming available from satellites will enable more accurate mapping and spread prediction of wildfires. Since we created Wildfire Today in 2008 we have frequently displayed maps showing fire data collected by the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument package, such as the one below of the Falls Fire near Elsinore, California in August. The red squares represent heat detected by MODIS before the fire spread east across the South Main Divide and down through the bowl where the Decker Fire fatalities occurred in 1959. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Map of Falls Fire at 1:47 p.m. PDT, August 5, 2013
Map of Falls Fire at 1:47 p.m. PDT, August 5, 2013, showing heat detected by a satellite. The red squares indicating heat can be as much as a mile in error. (click to enlarge)

MODIS, launched in 1999 with its 1,000-meter resolution system, is starting to show its age. Better technology is now available and is orbiting 512 miles above the Earth on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite launched October 28, 2011 . The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the satellite is a 22-band radiometer designed to collect infrared and visible light data to observe wildfires, movement of ice, and changes in landforms. It has a resolution of 375 meters, much better than the MODIS. The new Landsat 8 satellite launched in February has a resolution of 30 meters for most of its sensors, and 100 meters for thermal infrared. This will be a game changer. In March we published a test image of the Galena Fire taken with Landsat 8.

Below is a comparison of data from MODIS and VIIRS. Click on it to see a larger version.

When observing wildfires, satellites provide different levels of detail, depending on which instrument is used. The image at left, produced from data generated by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, uses 1-kilometer pixels (a bit over half a mile across) to approximate a fire burning in Brazil from March 26 to 30, 2013. The image at right, produced with data from the new VIIRS instrument, shows the same fire in far greater detail with 375-meter pixels (a bit over 1,200 feet across). (Image courtesy Wilfrid Schroeder, University of Maryland.)

Last month we told you about a proposed satellite, called FUEGO – Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, which would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less and could detect a fire that is about 10 feet in diameter. Assuming that the data from the satellite could be transmitted to the appropriate dispatch center within a minute or two, this could be a major step toward keeping fires small… IF the fire agencies have the appropriate initial attack policies in place and an adequate number of firefighting resources, both ground and air-based, to respond and arrive at the fire within the first 10 to 30 minutes. But since the cost of the satellite could be several hundred million dollars, it probably will never be built or launched.

Two scientists who have been working with some of the new data that is available now are Janice Coen of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and Wilfrid Schroeder with the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland. They intend to transition the new refined spatial resolution VIIRS and Landsat-8 fire detection data and a new weather forecast-fire spread model into operations in the next two to three years. Mr. Schroeder told us that some of the higher resolution data should replace the MODIS data on the GEOMAC website in the next one to two months. In the meantime you can see some early versions of it on an experimental basis at a website they created.

The two of them recently published a paper documenting the development of a new wildfire spread model (think newer version of BEHAVE) that, coupled with high resolution numerical weather prediction and the actual location of a fire as detected by the 375-meter resolution VIIRS, predicts the fire behavior and spread of a fire, displaying it on a map. The model can be run after the overflights of the satellite every 12 hours using updated weather forecast information and the current location of the fire.

Their paper is HERE, and a description of the concept written by Ms. Coen is below.
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Researchers design satellite to detect wildfires — a step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety?

A concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires.

Researchers at Berkeley have designed a concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires. Decades ago we relied on a network of lookout towers staffed by employees and later volunteers who observed emerging fires and reported them by telephone or radio. Today most fires are turned in by residents or travelers with cell phones.

Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

But if a fire is not detected and reported quickly, rapid initial attack is not possible.

This proposed satellite, called FUEGO – Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less and could detect a fire that is about 10 feet in diameter. Assuming that the data from the satellite could be transmitted to the appropriate dispatch center within a minute or two, this could be a major step toward keeping fires small… IF the fire agencies have the appropriate initial attack policies in place and an adequate number of firefighting resources, both ground and air-based, to respond and arrive at the fire within the first 10 to 30 minutes.

FUEGO satellite
Artist’s concept for FUEGO on orbit (FUEGO Concept Art by R. E. Lafever, LBNL)

While the cost of the satellite could be several hundred million dollars, it could conceivably save money if it prevents a few megafires like the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park last summer that to date has cost more than $127 million.

The real time detection of new fires is a very worthy goal, but added to this system should be the capability for real time monitoring and mapping of existing fires. The Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety is a system that could track firefighters on the ground AND the location of the fire, all displayed on one screen. This data should be available in real time to key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections on fires. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. This information could have saved 24 lives in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza Fire. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not know where the firefighters were relative to the location of the fire.

All of this technology exists. It would be expensive to implement, but it could save lives.