(Originally published at 3:44 MDT September 11, 2018)
The website where firefighting agencies can post current information about ongoing wildfires and other incidents went through a major change in March. InciWeb, a nickname for Incident Information System, was created in 2004 to provide for the public a single source of incident-related information. When measured by the number of visitors, it has been a huge success. Before it existed it was difficult for the public to ferret out current information about fires that may be threatening their property. Incident management teams would create websites from scratch for fire information, staple paper copies of updates along a “trap line” of bulletin boards in communities near the fire, place the information on social media platforms, or just send news releases to their regular mailing list.
In the last 15 years the old user interface (above) had remained virtually the same, as the contracted developers that managed the back end occasionally made minor changes and fixed bugs when requested by personnel at the National Interagency Fire Center, primarily the U.S. Forest Service. But the new version that appeared in March of this year (below) looked completely different to the site visitor.
The most profound and noticeable change is there is no longer a table that lists multiple fires, along with the agency, state, acres, and how current the update was. The table in the version that disappeared in March could be sorted with a single click on one of the headers and then you could click to see successive pages each with 10 additional incidents. You could view the largest fires, those most recently updated, all fires in Utah, or see all the fires on the Umpqua National Forest grouped together, for example. The system also had the ability to only display fires in one state, by clicking on “Select a State” at the upper-right.
The new system has a “Search incidents and states” option too. But when you type the name of a state in the box the image simply zooms the map to that state. This is helpful only to someone who can’t find a state on a map.
With the revised system there are two ways to get detailed information about a fire. If you know the name you can look for it in the pull-down list at upper-right.
If you know what region of the country the fire is in you can zoom the map to that area. Then you can manually search fire-by-fire by hovering a mouse pointer over an icon until a fire name appears. Clicking adds a little more information — the acres, when it was updated, and the containment percentage. (Containment was apparently added for those who incorrectly assume it actually is reliable information.) Clicking on “Go to incident” displays all of the basic data about the incident. Other buttons to click on then include Announcements (which from my experience are almost never posted), Closures, News, Photographs, and Maps. I don’t know what the difference is between Announcements and News.
There are some features I like about the new version of InciWeb. The overall appearance is clean and modern looking. The map on the home page is much larger than in the previous iteration, and the thumbnails of photos and incident maps are also a little larger.
The platform also seems to be more stable and probably has more capacity for hosting site visitors. It also loads fairly quickly. At times over the years it would crash on a regular basis, sometimes for days. The first time we wrote about the site was in 2008 after it had been intermittently up and down. Here is an excerpt:
…But when there are many fires burning, or there are one or two that generate a lot of interest, the web site can’t handle the load and chokes, not working at all. When the need for it is the greatest, it is most likely to fail.
And in 2013 we wrote:
If a site with this purpose can’t have at least 99.99 percent uptime, and load a page reliably in less than three to four seconds, it needs to be put out of its misery.
The big negative, as described earlier, is that a table with an overview of groups of 10 fires, sorted by one of six criteria of your choosing, is no longer available. It also was a good method of finding a particular fire, rather than hunting icon by icon in the current version. Removing this feature is a step backward for anyone interested in learning about or monitoring fires in their local unit or state, or wants a list of all of the fires ranked by size. Previously every fire could be seen at a glance by continuing to click on “next” above the table.
A couple of months ago we asked Christine Schuldheisz, a Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service who is the business lead for InciWeb, why the overview table was discarded:
The redesigned website is the result of collaboration between local, state, tribal and federal agencies across the country. Dozens of InciWeb users from these agencies provided input on how to improve the website and participated in extensive testing of it. Based on feedback and testing we decided to remove the table and replace it with an interactive map for users to view incidents based on their location. A user can use the map or search bar at the top to search by incident or state.
[Update at 5:03 MDT September 11, 2018: Ms. Schuldheisz just notified us, after she read this article, that there is a way to view a list of fires. At the bottom of the home page, in the footer, click on Help, and in the “Web Accessibility (Section 508)” paragraph there is a link that will bring up a list for the visually impaired. She said, “We are adding a filter and a some other features to this table to make it easily found in the footer.” We checked out the table and it is sorted by update time, with the most recent on top. There is no apparent way to sort the column of your choice.]
Now, finding a particular fire can be challenging. So much so that the mangers of InciWeb are ordering agency personnel who post fire information to delete non-active fires, as well as “media” and especially videos when they are no longer current. This is to free up needed storage space, Ms. Jones told us, and to decrease the clutter of icons on the map to make it easier to find an active fire.
We will be posting another article about the implications of purging fire information from the site.
A poll we conducted in July found that 47 percent of the respondents preferred the old version of InciWeb vs. 33 percent who liked the new edition better.
What do you think about the changes to InciWeb?