Using maps of fires to communicate with the public

The good the bad and the ugly

Maps are a great way to communicate with a public that may be starving for information about an ongoing fire, or to inform them about conditions that could lead to more fires. They can provide information very quickly — if thoughtfully created.

The two maps below distributed by Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACC) on Twitter attempt to warn the public about the elevated danger of wildfires caused by actual or predicted lightning. I would venture a guess that the general public would have great difficulty figuring out what part of the country they represent based solely on the images. There are no state boundaries that can be easily identified and no cities or highways to make the guessing game easier. The polygons within the maps (which are not counties on the RMACC map) do not convey any worthwhile information to the casual Twitter user, only adding to the confusion.

I am a harsher critic of maps than most, having spent many fire assignments as Situation Unit Leader and Planning Section Chief, producing maps for firefighters and the public. Map making continues at Wildfire Today, producing graphics to illustrate the location of fires.

When the public sees smoke or they hear about new fires, many of them have one overriding question. Where is the fire? Unless they have property in the area, the typical person does not need to know that the fire is 300 feet west of Forest Service Road 24D3. They also don’t care about division breaks or helicopter dip sites. They need a map so they can figure out, in many cases, where the fire is in relation to them or their community. A map that is zoomed in so tight that the geographical context of the fire can’t be seen, is often not helpful to the public. A person can get oriented more easily if they can see highways and one or more cities/towns/communities. But if the incident is in a very remote area, that can be difficult.

I visited InciWeb today and found some good, bad, and ugly examples. All of the images below were large files that needed to be reduced in size to show here; the original images have more detail.

The map below of the Castle and Shotgun Fires on the Sequoia National Forest appears to be based on the standard Forest Service recreation map that forest visitors can purchase — on paper. It is shaded, which may represent vegetation and/or topography and also includes virtually every Forest Service site or feature that exists, including dirt roads. The result is clutter that unless a person has a high-resolution copy of the image and plenty of time, it is difficult or impossible to find paved roads, highways, or communities that could help a person to get oriented. At least it has a vicinity map at upper-right so we know it is in central California.

The base map used for fire public information maps should not be topographical lines or the standard F.S. recreation map.

Map SQF Complex of fires
Map of the SQF Complex of fires on the Sequoia National Forest, August 28, 2020.

The map of the Griffin Fire below is better. It is zoomed out providing geographical context, and is not cluttered. But much of the very small text is difficult or impossible to read.

Griffin Fire, Arizona
Griffin Fire, Arizona, August 30, 2020.

The map below shows five widely separated fires in Arizona so it has quite a bit of context. It shows many, many dirt roads, but that helps to show the location of the three fires on the east side. I don’t know that the shaded relief background adds value, but it has a vicinity map, which is a plus. Overall, a very good map.

Medicine Fire Arizona
Medicine and other Fires in Arizona Augut 30, 2020.

The map of the P515 and Lionshead Fires in Oregon deserves praise for its simplicity and lack of clutter. The colors showing ownership are all very different from each other, making it simple to compare them to the helpful legend. It is effective and easy to comprehend. The Lionshead Fire is so close to the edge it makes me wonder what is just off the map to the west. Probably more of the same, but still…

(One of my pet peeves is when six similar shades of brown, for example, represent different features. Not a problem on this map.)

P515 and Lionshead Fires in Oregon
P515 and Lionshead Fires in Oregon, August 29, 2020.

The best map that I ran across during my quick perusal of InciWeb today is the White River Fire on the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon. The map maker made sure to include at least one community and several highways. They even went the extra step of adding three labels to features with which the public may be familiar. It is pleasing to the eye, has a useful legend, and the highways near the fire are identified. Even though much of the fire is on Forest Service responsibility land, they resisted the urge to use the FS recreation map as a base map.  Great job, White River Fire. (Contact us and we’ll send you a prize, a Wildfire Today cap.)

White River Fire in Oregon
White River Fire in Oregon. August 30, 2020.

Winter task for U.S. and Australia wildfire agencies: create a common operating picture

One source for informing the public and gathering information about mitigating the emergencies, providing relief, managing transportation corridors, electrical power grids, and evacuations

fire map Victoria
Map from Emergency Management Victoria, January 6, 2020.

After the 2019-2020 southern hemisphere bushfire season, emergency management personnel in both the United States and Australia should take the opportunity to evaluate the fire season and determine if there is a better way of distributing information to the public and emergency management agencies.  In neither country is there one key source for information where the public, the media, and the responsible agencies can quickly and efficiently obtain important real-time intelligence and predictive models that they need to make decisions about informing the public, mitigating the emergencies, providing relief, managing transportation corridors, and gathering information about electrical power grids and evacuations.

The military calls this information source a common operating picture (COP).

All of this information is available at hundreds if not thousands of sources, but not everyone that could benefit from the data have access. It needs to be pulled together for safety and efficiency.

In the United States if a citizen needs current information about a wildfire how do they get it? From the county sheriff, local fire department, or a county, state, or federal agency? It makes a difference about where to look if the fire is on federal land, state protected land,  city, county, national or state park. They can try social media, but which application and which account? InciWeb sometimes has information about wildfires managed by federal agencies, but not all. And since law enforcement is responsible for evacuation, InciWeb does not always have current information about the status of evacuations. Information on the website about individual fires may not have been updated for 12 to 18 hours, however some incident management teams are better than others. And InciWeb rarely provides projections of fire spread in a timely manner, if at all. When someone is threatened by a rapidly spreading wildfire they don’t have time to randomly check an alphabet soup of acronyms on dozens of web sites or social media accounts, even if they know the names, handles, or web addresses.

A COP would need to have a sign-in option that would make it possible for authorized personnel to see detailed data that should not be distributed to the whole world, such as exact locations of resources.

Below are examples of fire location information in Australia on January 6, 2020 United States time, in addition to the Victoria map at the top of the page.

Map New South Wales Rural Fire Service fires
Map from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service showing fires that are at the “Advice” level, meaning “A fire has started. There is no immediate danger. Stay up to date in case the situation changes.”
Map in South Australia
Map of fires in South Australia January 6, 2019. From SA Country Fire Service.

The maps produced for New South Wales and South Australia can be more useful upon zooming in, but occasionally they are so cluttered with multiple polygons and symbols that they are difficult to decipher. The Victoria map improves after zooming in, but it tries to include too much information.

The data on these three maps stops at the imaginary line separating the states. This could give someone the false impression that there are no fires just across the state border. If you need information about a location near a state line you need to know how to access the data for both states.

The three Australian states all use different symbology, so an icon or polygon on one map may have a completely different meaning in the neighboring state.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service occasionally produces detailed maps showing the perimeter of a single fire and the predicted spread, but it is not done on a regular basis and may be difficult to find when it does exist.

But these Australian state maps attempt to include at least some information about all large bushfires in their state. In the United States no agency to my knowledge even attempts this. InciWeb produces a map of the country that shows the location of every fire on federally managed land that is being tracked on the website, but does not include federal fires that are not on the site, or state or locally managed fires.

For both Australia and the U.S. creating a national map for wildfire information would be a great first step toward a common operating picture.

Check out Ellen Broad’s thread on this mapping topic. She has some excellent observations.

New real time mapping system used on Cave Fire

Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS)
An example of an output from the Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) used on the Cave Fire near Santa Barbara, CA November 26, 2019. The dots with arrows represent weather stations. Inciweb.

A new real time wildfire mapping system was used on the Cave Fire near Santa Barbara, California this week.

In September the Orange County Fire Authority began a 150-day pilot program to use and evaluate the Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS). The program got off the ground thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

The system utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling.

(Click here to see all articles on the Cave Fire, including the most recent)

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
Screenshot of aircraft featured in the FIRIS B-Roll video.

A supercomputer at the University of California San Diego runs WIFIRE spread projections based on fire perimeter data collected by the aircraft. The output estimates where the fire will be in the next six hours. The fire spread model adjusts for successful fire suppression actions by firefighters on the ground and in the air. This intel allows for more timely and accurate decision making for resource allocation and evacuations.

flight path N4717V fire mapping
The flight path of N4717V, a Turbo Commander 690, also known as “AC90”. It was orbiting over the Cave Fire at 12,400 feet on November 26, 2019. Flightaware map.
AC90 mapping aircraft wildfire
The FIRIS aircraft, shown as “AC90”, was over the Cave Fire along with two S-2T air tankers, at 7:52 a.m. November 26, 2019. Flightradar24

If I am correctly interpreting the WIFIRE product at the top of this article the system predicted that the Cave Fire would grow from 4,994 to 8,880 acres over a 90-minute period beginning at 10:56 a.m. on November 26, 2019. Spot fires were predicted more than a mile ahead. However, decreasing winds that day slowed the spread. A weather station in San Marcos Pass about three miles northwest of the fire recorded sustained wind speeds from 1 to 5 mph between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Rain beginning at 2 a.m. November 27 stopped  the spread at 4,330 acres.

Weather San Marcos Pass
Weather at San Marcos Pass, November 26-27, 2019.

The video below is “B-Roll”, that is, unedited footage of the FIRIS system. The first 6.5 minutes are simply images of aircraft, but after that you will be able to look over the shoulder of the imagery technician as he observes infrared imagery of a fire, manually interprets the heat signatures, then traces the fire perimeter on the screen. That perimeter could then be electronically sent to the super computer in San Diego County which would run a fire spread model to predict what the fire will do in the next six hours.

Our attempts to obtain more information about FIRIS from personnel on the Cave Fire that used the system were not successful.

PG&E launches satellite wildfire alert system

PG&E fire detection and alert system
PG&E fire detection and alert system. PG&E illustration.

The following information was released by the California-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company which describes a system they have developed to extract near real time fire detection data from satellites, such as the GOES 16 and the new GOES 17. Scott Strenfel, a Senior Meteorologist at PG&E, said   they are planning to make the data public within a month or two, which may be the first public tool available with GOES-R fire detections.


SAN FRANCISCO –– After several years of testing and development, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has deployed the PG&E Satellite Fire Detection and Alerting System.

The Satellite Fire Detection and Alerting System is a state-of-the-science program that incorporates data from the two new GOES satellites, as well as three polar orbiting satellites, to provide PG&E with advanced warning 24/7 of potential new fire incidents. The satellites are operated by the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service division.

“This capability offers first-of-its-kind situational awareness by providing a live feed from the satellites to our Wildfire Safety Operations Center. Emerging technologies such as this are another way we are working to reduce wildfire risk and protect our customers and our communities,” said Sumeet Singh, Vice President of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program.

The PG&E Meteorology Team led development of the program in collaboration with experts in the satellite fire detection field from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC). The system became fully operational in late June.

PG&E fire detection and alert system
PG&E fire detection and alert system.

Working with the SSEC, PG&E developed a dedicated and proprietary data pipeline that provides fire detection data as fast as every minute. An internal web application allows staff at PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Operations Center to track fire progression as well as the intensity of fires in near real time. The system also generates new fire alerts via email and on an app. The system has already detected hundreds of fires since it began limited operation in February.

If a fire is detected from two or more satellites, such as GOES-16 and 17, then confidence is high of an actual fire in the area. In many cases this system is expected to provide an early, if not the first, indication of an incident.

Community Wildfire Safety Program

By the end of 2019, PG&E plans to have at least 600 weather stations and 100 high-definition cameras in high fire-threat areas. These new installations are one of the additional precautionary measures the company is implementing following the 2017 and 2018 wildfires to further reduce wildfire risks.

Researchers demonstrate that it is possible to accurately measure wildfire rate of spread from an orbiting aircraft

measure wildfire rate of spread from aircraft
Figure 3. Fire spread sequence for Detwiler Fire. Active fire fronts and fire spread vectors are portrayed for the seven-image sequence on 20 July 2017. The background image is a fusion of NAIP colour (depicting vegetation fuels and topography) with a colour density sliced version of the seventh FireMapper 2.0 image.

Now that federal land management agencies are being forced by an act of Congress to begin providing to fire managers the real time location of fires and firefighting resources, it opens a range of cascading benefits beyond just enhancing their safety and situational awareness.

Fire Behavior Analysts that could continuously observe the fire with infrared video from a manned or unmanned aircraft orbiting above the air tankers could make much more accurate, valuable, and timely Fire Behavior Forecasts. The fire spread computer models could be fine-tuned to be more accurate and their outputs could be displayed on the map along with the locations of firefighters who carry tracking devices, enabling the Operations Section Chief to make better-informed strategic and tactical decisions.

But until recently it was not known if georeferenced infrared imagery from an orbiting aircraft was accurate enough to be used for determining the rate of spread.

The short answer is, yes. A paper published last week indicates that the accuracy is sufficient. (FYI — the document is written for other scientists and not for practitioners.)

Now the question becomes, will the federal land management agencies actually implement the program to track the real-time location of fires and firefighters, or will they slow-walk it into oblivion like the Congressional orders to purchase a new air tanker, convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers, and the repeated requests from the GAO and Inspector General to provide data about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft?

measure wildfire rate of spread from aircraft
Figure 7. Wildfire spread during the Rey Fire on 21 August 2016. (a) Time 1 fire front. (b) Time 2 fire front (7 min later). (c) Fire spread vectors and ROS statistics. (d) 3-D perspective image depicting active fire front and spread vectors. (e) Histogram depicting frequency distribution of ROS estimates for all spread vectors in the two-pass imaging sequence.

Unfortunately even though United States taxpayers funded the research through the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation (grant number G00011220), only some of us will be able to read the fruits of the research since it is not an Open Access document. After it is viewed 50 times free access will be shut off.

Open Access logo
Open Access logo

It is published at Taylor and Francis Online, a private company based in the United Kingdom. So by the time you read this the company may be charging people to read the document. (UPDATE at 7:42 a.m. MST February 21, 2019: General access to the document has been shut off. The company is now charging $50 to view it for 24 hours.)

Not allowing taxpayers to read government funded research unless they pay for it again is reprehensible.

The document is at Taylor and Francis Online: Assessing uncertainty and demonstrating potential for estimating fire rate of spread at landscape scales based on time sequential airborne thermal infrared imaging. By: Douglas Stow, Philip Riggan, Gavin Schag, William Brewer, Robert Tissell, Janice Coen, and Emanuel Storey

Wildfire history of California, interactive

California fire history map
California fire history map by Capital Public Radio. All fires in Southern California 1878-2018. Click to enlarge.

We often hear, “It’s not IF an area will burn, but WHEN”.

Capital Public Radio has developed an interactive map showing the footprints of wildfires that have occurred in California since 1878. You can see all of the fires at once, or individual years, and the map is zoomable. (The map may not display well in all browsers. It seems to work best using Firefox.)

I may or may not have spent too much time looking at these maps.

California fire history map San Diego County
California fire history map by Capital Public Radio. San Diego County, 2003. The largest fire is the Cedar Fire. Click to enlarge.