DHS tests next generation Wildland Urban Interface alerting technology

Evacuation at the Fort McMurray Fire in Alberta, Canada May, 2016
Evacuation at the Fort McMurray Fire in Alberta, Canada May, 2016.

The Department of Homeland Security hosted a proof-of-concept demonstration of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) integration model Monday, August 15, in Fairfax, VA.  The model integrates next generation technologies with the Federal Emergency Management Agency Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS), enabling alerting authorities to disseminate Wireless Emergency Alerts with new capabilities such as displaying hazard and evacuation alert information on the “infotainment” screens in vehicles.

The DHS is working with partners to develop a new method for putting life safety alerts, such as evacuation alerts, into navigation applications during emergencies. Doing so will not only provide alerts to an increasingly mobile public, but also help the public make informed navigation decisions in all-hazard situations.

“Effective communication of emergency fire information and evacuation routes to people in an endangered area is a necessity for first responders striving to manage emergency operations and guide safe public response actions,” said Norman Speicher, Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate program manager. “Connecting emergency management tools to situations in the WUI will help emergency management officials achieve better routes and procedures by utilizing cutting-edge technologies that help define, share, and manage the status, and communicate evacuation routes and safety zones in real-time.”

Elmo Fire spreads toward Lake Mary Ronan in Montana

We discovered it is difficult to find evacuation information

Updated 4:33 p.m. MDT August 4, 2022

Elmo Fire map, north end, 3-08 p.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire map, north end. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:08 p.m. Aug. 4, 2022. The fire continues to spread closer to Lake Mary Ronan.

A satellite overflight at 3:08 p.m. MDT Thursday detected heat from the Elmo Fire very close to the south end of Lake Mary Ronan.

There are many structures on the east side of the lake. The Incident Management Team said Thursday morning they hoped to keep the fire from spreading beyond Camp Tuffit Road.

Updated 3:23 p.m. MDT August 4, 2022

Elmo Fire 3-D map 4:39 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire 3-D map 4:39 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022.

The Elmo Fire which started July 29 continues to spread north toward Lake Mary Ronan. The south edge is secure along Highway 28, but firefighters are having a difficult time stopping the northward progression through the timber as it approaches the lake.

The fire was mapped Wednesday night at 20,616 acres. The east side of the fire is very close to Flathead Lake and it appears likely that the north side will reach Lake Mary Ronan.

Elmo Fire map 5:02 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire map. The red dots represent heat detected by satellites at 5:02 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022. The white line was the perimeter at 12:53 a.m. August 1, 2022.

On Wednesday winds increased out of the southwest in the afternoon resulting in upslope runs, spotting, and significant growth on the north side, limiting firefighters’ ability to engage directly on the fire’s edge.  All areas of the fire were supported by numerous aircraft dropping water and retardant.

On Thursday firefighters are focusing on Camp Tuffit Road and are working to hold the fire as it approaches the southeast shore of Lake Mary Ronan. Firefighters are prepping structures and constructing secondary firelines.

The Flathead Beacon reported that four homes have been destroyed, quoting an information officer at the fire.

It is not easy to find up to date evacuation information for this incident. At InciWeb the last time it was mentioned was on August 2, 2022 (no time was included). It listed a change, then said “all prior evacuations are in effect.” But there was no link to “prior evacuations”.  The change at that time was to include “all residents residing north and south of Hwy 352 (Lake Mary Ronan Road) and all residents who live along Lake Mary Ronan. ”

Another announcement on InciWeb said, “At approximately 2 PM, Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 7 recommended the evacuation of the Lake Mary Ronan corridor to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.”

No date or time was included in the announcement, other than “three days ago.”

Our take
Ordering the public to evacuate and leave their homes is an earth-shattering event for most residents. It can mean the difference between life and death. Then there are the practical logistics of hauling off your critical medicines, documents, family photos, electronics, and pets, then finding a place to shelter which may involve a large expenditure of money.

For the Incident Management Team to treat the evacuation so casually, is not acceptable.

Firefighters do not order an evacuation. They may recommend it, but it can only be ordered and implemented by law enforcement. If the Incident Management Team does not have the current information, they should at least provide a link so someone can easily find this critical data. Assuming that the general public visiting InciWeb will happily mentally cut and paste little bits of evacuation information from multiple web pages to form a complete picture of whether they have to evacuate or not, is poor incident management.

I conducted a search in an attempt to find the information that may have been posted by a law enforcement or emergency management agency, with no success.

When I discovered this issue, I asked the Incident Management Team if they knew of one place where a citizen could get the information, and was told that it was on their InciWeb page under “Announcements.” The email reply was not signed by a person, just “Public Information, Northern Rockies Team 7.” Apparently no one there wants to be held accountable.

“If the announcement is a couple days old, then no changes have occurred to evacuations,” the reply said. “We will continue to post Evacuation updates here as soon as we hear from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.”

An Incident Management Team should either:

  1. Provide accurate, complete, easy to understand, current evacuation information. OR:
  2. Provide a link to a website that has the information.

If an Incident Management Team finds that their recommendation for evacuation has not been implemented, or has not been communicated to the public in a useful way, the Incident Commander should follow up. Maybe the local jurisdiction rarely has to implement evacuations and does not have a check list of all the steps that must be taken. It can be turned into a teachable moment. But the follow up must occur.

Officials disagree on responsibility for evacuation planning in Marin County, California

Marin County fire history 1917-2020
Marin County fire history 1917-2020. The blue areas were all prior to 1980. NIFC map.

Many residents and government officials in Marin County recognize the importance of evacuation planning, but there is no agreement on which agency has the responsibility. In March voters approved a parcel tax that would raise about $19 million each year for the newly formed Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority (WPA), but the county’s Civil Grand Jury ruled in December that the agency’s plans do not adequately address the issue.

Marin County map
Marin County, outlined in red. (Google)

From the Marin Independent Journal:

Part of that funding will go toward studying evacuation routes, creating evacuation maps and clearing vegetation along narrow Marin roads. But the agency does not have the authority or the funding to take on infrastructure projects that could create safer roads for people fleeing wildfires, the grand jury said.

“The grand jury is concerned that Marin’s public may have a false sense of security regarding evacuation routes, thinking that all issues relating to the matter will be handled by the new government agency,” the report says.

While Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber agreed that the wildfire authority doesn’t have the funding to take on road infrastructure projects, he said the agency is taking the initial step in addressing Marin’s evacuation safety problem.

Marin County, population 258,826, is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge north to Bodega Bay and east to Novato and San Pablo Bay.

Evacuation planning will likely point out a need for road infrastructure projects, for which the WPA does not have funding. The Transportation Authority of Marin, or TAM, is the only agency in the county with access to funding and authority over countywide transportation projects. The grand jury recommended that a representative from TAM serve as a non-voting member of the WPA.

Marin County evacuation choke points
Marin County Civil Grand Jury, Wildfire Preparedness: A New Approach, Appendix C, April 25, 2019.

Fire officials in Marin County have identified “choke points” where residents are likely to get caught in congestion when evacuating from wildfires. Since many of those run through multiple jurisdictions, the grand jury said TAM should serve as the coordinating agency but TAM officials “continue to deny that the agency has any role or responsibility for considering evacuation needs in its transportation projects.”

Community infrastructure and planning was one of the six categories of actions Wildfire Today pointed out in April, 2019 that must be taken to reduce the impact of wildfires on communities. That category includes:

  • Distance to nearby structures
  • Evacuation capability and planning
  • Safety zones where residents can shelter in place
  • Road and driveway width, wide enough for large fire trucks
  • Turnarounds at the end of roads
  • Signage, and
  • Emergency water supply.

The other five categories that need to be considered in fire-prone communities are home spacing/lot size; envelope of the structure itself; home ignition zone; wildland-urban interface; and fire codes.

Communicating with the public during evacuations is not easy

fire Evacuation to beach
Australia Royal Commission photo.

Officials in Australia have started a process that should be of interest to fire managers and public officials in the United States. They are establishing across the continent common terminology and symbols to indicate the level of threat from an existing wildfire or other emergency and the recommended action that should be taken. Previously there was not complete consistency among the eight states and territories, which at times led to confusion about what the level of danger was and the action that should be taken. This was especially a problem near the borders of the states when a message from across the border may use unfamiliar jargon.

Australian Warning System icons
The new Australian Warning System icons, 2020.

The Australian Bushfire Warning System is a national, three level bushfire alert system, “Advice”, “Watch and Act”, and “Emergency Warning”.  Australia recognized the inconsistency problem with their 8 states.

But not only do the 50 U.S. states have different systems for describing potential and current wildfire conditions, they also may differ city to city and county to county.

Warnings for evacuations

One of the most stressful times in a person’s life can be when they are forced to evacuate due to a wildfire, flood, or extreme weather event. This is not the time to give them ambiguous instructions, or use jargon many of them have never heard before. LEVEL TWO EVACUATION! What in the hell does that mean?  Or, EVACUATION IS AT THE SET LEVEL!  Or, WATCH AND ACT!

Recently used evacuation jargon has included:

  • Mandatory, Order, and Voluntary;
  • Level 1, 2, and 3 (or,  I, II, and III)
  • Stage 1, 2, and 3
  • Ready, Set, and Go

And I won’t even get into some that have been used for large structures such as Horizontal, Vertical, Partial, Vertical Phased, or Progressive Horizontal.

After reflecting on the massive evacuations required by wildfires in 2017 and 2018, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommended standard evacuation terminology and phrases for cities and counties to use during an emergency within the state, based in part on a White Paper written for the office in 2019.

Evacuation Order: Immediate threat to life. This is a lawful order to leave now. The area is lawfully closed to public access.

Evacuation Warning: Potential threat to life and/or property. Those who require additional time to evacuate, and those with pets and livestock should leave now.

Shelter in Place: Go indoors. Shut and lock doors and windows. Prepare to self-sustain until further notice and/or contacted by emergency personnel for additional direction.

Evacuation Order(s) Lifted: The formal announcement of lifting evacuations in an area currently under evacuation.

Hard Closure: Closed to all traffic except Fire and Law Enforcement.

Soft Closure: Closed to all traffic except Fire, Law Enforcement and critical Incident resources (i.e. Utility, Caltrans, City/County Roads etc. or those needed to repair or restore infrastructure).

Resident Only Closure: Soft closure with the additional allowance of residents and local government agencies assisting with response and recovery.

In most U.S. locations fire departments do not have the authority to issue evacuation orders. It is generally stipulated they have the expertise to know when and where it should take place but they make that recommendation to law enforcement who actually issue the order to the public, and enforce it when necessary.

Notifying citizens that they are in the path of a fire has proven to be extremely difficult, subject to technical problems and human error. Many jurisdictions have purchased reverse 911 systems that can make phone calls or send texts to warn residents in a specific area of a threat. In some cases each person has to opt-in, and if you’re a visitor you may not be notified. There are a few apps available for mobile phones, some of which are not operated by government agencies and may not be 100 percent reliable for immediate notification.

Wildfire apps and services

The U.S. Forest Service has had Wildfires Near Me in development since 2016, and it is still in beta. It’s not an app, but you can sign up online, give them an address you’re interested in, and specify to be notified by email or text message of wildfires within your desired distance from that address. It does not issue emergency notifications such as evacuation orders, but you might receive a notice each time an updated Incident Status Summary form, (ICS-209) has been entered in the NIFC system, once or twice a day, about fires in that location. Then you can go to InciWeb to get more details.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a “web-based app” but it can’t be installed from the Android, Google, or Apple app stores. It can provide some information about fires managed by CAL FIRE, but it generally has no  information about US Forest Service responsibility fires or those of local jurisdiction. Colorado also has an app, Colorado Wildfire Watch App which is designed to only be available to people in the state.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

A system in the United States, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), is another possibility and can be activated by state and local public safety officials, the National Weather Service (NWS), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (think Amber Alert), and the president of the United States. Beginning in 2019 the accuracy of the geotargeting for WEA became more precise, requiring providers to deliver the alerts to the area specified by the alert originator with no more than a 1/10 of a mile overshoot.Wireless Emergency Alerts The system uses location processing in the mobile phone itself. The handset receives the alert including the polygon of the alert area, then the phone uses its GPS-assisted location to determine whether it is inside or outside the polygon. Even if you’re far from home, but in the threat area, you should receive the alert.

On August 15, 2020 the NWS used WEA to send out the first ever real time warning about a fire tornado on the Loyalton Fire about 12 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada.

“Our forecasters were tracking the plume on radar and were seeing rotation signatures comparable to that of a tornado. Factoring in public and firefighter safety, they issued a rare tornado warning associated with a large fire,” said NWS Reno Meteorologist and Public Information Officer Chris Smallcomb. Upon inspection, NWS found evidence of three different tornado paths with the largest being a low-grade EF-2. Said Smallcomb, “NWS Reno’s fire tornado warning has resulted in a robust policy conversation within the NWS and partner agencies about the utility of such warnings in a wildland fire situation, since it had never been done before!”

Between January 1 and September 14, 2020, alerting authorities sent 1,750 WEAs. The topics were for missing children AMBER alerts, severe weather, flash floods, and COVID-19 related for mask wearing, shelter-in-place notices, social distancing, and testing facility locations.

Do we need a national fire warning app specifically for wildfires?

Australia has considered the development of a national all-hazard warning app to address the limitations of the bushfire warning apps during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. Some state or local jurisdictions in Australia have apps that can push notifications and have Watch Zone functionalities.

Australia’s Royal Commission report included this about the potential for a national bushfire warning app:

Data from state and territory governments lacks consistency and this presents a challenge to developing a national warning app. Availability of nationally consistent data is a key enabler for the development of a national app by the Australian government, or a commercial provider.

The same limitation may exist in the U.S.

Navy ships rescue over 1,000 bushfire evacuees

The two ships unloaded their passengers at Hastings near Melbourne on Saturday

Australia bushfires evacuation Mallacoo HMAS Choulesta
Evacuees disembarking the HMAS Choules. Australia. DoD photo.

Over 1,000 people who were forced by the bushfires in Australia to take refuge on coastal beaches have been rescued by the Navy and transported to the Melbourne area. Friday morning the evacuees at Mallacoota in northeast Victoria were moved from the community center to the pier by buses and then transported to ships using five landing craft.

Australia bushfires evacuation Mallacoo HMAS Choulesta
Evacuees being ferried to the HMAS Choules. Australia. DoD photo.
Australia bushfires evacuation Mallacoo HMAS Choulesta
Evacuees being ferried to the HMAS Choules. Australia. DoD photo.

Two ships took part in the mission.  The smaller of the two was the MV Sycamore, a 308-foot 2,400-ton training ship first launched in 2016. It normally operates with a 22-person crew, can accommodate up to 71 Australian Defense Force personnel overnight, and has a multi-use space which can be configured to help cope with disasters. The Sycamore picked up 58 evacuees at Mallacoota on the northeast coast of Victoria and transported them on a 20-hour voyage about 320 miles to Hastings near Melbourne.

Australia bushfires evacuation Mallacoo MV Sycamore
MV Sycamore. ABC news photo.

The HMAS Choules is much larger than the Sycamore — 579 feet and 16,160 tons. It is classified as an “auxiliary landing ship logistics”, designed for hauling cargo. It operates with a 158-person crew and can carry 32 M1A1 Abrams tanks or 150 light trucks. According to Wikipedia it can transport 700 soldiers “in overload conditions.” On Friday it loaded 1,025 evacuees at Mallacoota and took them on the same 20-hour voyage to the Melbourne area. Army staff on the ship served approximately 3,500 meals during the trip.

Australia bushfires evacuation Mallacoo HMAS Choulesta
HMAS Choules

Both ships docked at the Port of Hastings Saturday and the passengers were transferred to a disaster relief center at the Melbourne convention center. They brought with them 135 dogs and several cats.

Evacuees who were very sick were flown from Mallacoota on Blackhawk helicopters.

In interviews with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation  and the Department of Defense, the evacuees spoke glowingly of how they were treated by the crews on the ships. A 16-year-old girl who had just disembarked from the Sycamore said, “It was so comfortable on the ship. The crew was amazing, food amazing, the beds — perfect. I’m very thankful for it.”

The two ships were scheduled to return to Mallacoota.

Australia bushfires evacuation Mallacoo HMAS Choulesta
Evacuees on the HMAS Choules. Australia. DoD photo.


Planning evacuations using dynamic fire vulnerability mapping

satellite photo Camp Fire Paradise California
Camp Fire as seen from NASA Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 at 10:45 PST November 8, 2018. The photo, enhanced with infrared imagery, was taken about 4 hours and 15 minutes after the fire started.

In the last three years examples of wildfires in North America that have caused massive evacuations, fatalities, and structures destroyed include:

City officials in Paradise had an evacuation plan in place and had even conducted a drill, but the plan assumed a specific fire situation that would allow time for sections of the city to evacuate, one area at at time. The Camp Fire, driven by strong winds, hit the community so quickly that the entire city had to evacuate immediately, causing the limited and low volume evacuation routes to become clogged. A situation like that with very little advance notice would overwhelm many cities, especially if the availability and capacity of routes can’t come close to handling the traffic.

Managers can use computer models to predict the spread of fires, and there are also models that can estimate how much time it would take to evacuate people in vehicles or on foot. But these models have not been integrated to determine how changes in fire behavior would affect evacuation capability and plans.

A linked fire behavior and evacuation model could have variable inputs for weather, fuels, and topography as well as an assortment of evacuation alternatives that could inform planners about existing and proposed designs.

An integrated modeling system or simulator for dynamic fire vulnerability mapping does not exist, but researchers have laid out specifications and a framework for building one. Their recommendations are detailed in a paper published in Safety Science titled, “An open physics framework for modelling wildland-urban interface fire evacuations.”

dynamic fire vulnerability mapping
Illustration from the researchers. Click to enlarge.

Below is the abstract from their paper:

“Fire evacuations at wildland-urban interfaces (WUI) pose a serious challenge to the emergency services, and are a global issue affecting thousands of communities around the world. This paper presents a multi-physics framework for the simulation of evacuation in WUI wildfire incidents, including three main modelling layers: wildfire, pedestrians, and traffic. Currently, these layers have been mostly modelled in isolation and there is no comprehensive model which accounts for their integration. The key features needed for system integration are identified, namely: consistent level of refinement of each layer (i.e. spatial and temporal scales) and their application (e.g. evacuation planning or emergency response), and complete data exchange. Timelines of WUI fire events are analysed using an approach similar to building fire engineering (available vs. required safe egress times for WUI fires, i.e. WASET/WRSET). The proposed framework allows for a paradigm shift from current wildfire risk assessment and mapping tools towards dynamic fire vulnerability mapping. This is the assessment of spatial and temporal vulnerabilities based on the wildfire threat evolution along with variables related to the infrastructure, population and network characteristics. This framework allows for the integration of the three main modelling layers affecting WUI fire evacuation and aims at improving the safety of WUI communities by minimising the consequences of wildfire evacuations.”

Authors of the paper: Enrico Ronchi, Steven M.V. Gwynne, Guillermo Rein, Paolo Intini, and Rahul Wadhwani.