Use of GIS and Social Networks Help Fight Colorado Wildfires

Predicting where a dangerous wildfire is going to start can be very difficult, but geographic information systems (GIS) can quickly analyze geographic data about fire-contributing conditions to aid in effective wildfire planning and prevention.

"GIS is an ideal technology to predict the characteristics of a wildfire because it excels at analyzing multiple data layers," says Gabe Schmidbauer, GIS professor at American Sentinel University. "The complex nature of wildfire dynamics requires the analysis of multiple disparate datasets such as housing, vegetation and weather for wildfire planning and prevention and can help predict when the current conditions are right for a wildfire," says Schmidbauer.

That's been the situation recently in Colorado as more than a dozen large fires burn in four national forests and eight other areas.

GIS Impacts Communities
Recently, a major online GIS mapping system was created to show the precise extent of the burning by GIS software vendor Esri to help residents, firefighters, emergency response workers, officials and others interested in the situation on the ground. It demonstrates how GIS experts can have a major impact on their communities.

"As GIS analysts model their prediction of wildfire behavior, they simulate changes in fire direction, intensity and geographical extent of a burned area over time to help predict where a potential fire will occur, as well as where a current fire will spread. This gives officials a leg up in fire prevention prediction analysis," says Schmidbauer.

Esri’s map system scrolls in or out to cover the area the user wants to see. Pull back and you notice that not only are there the well-publicized problems in Colorado, but large fires in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Idaho.

Social network hotspots are also included on the map. Click and you can see relevant data pulled in, including a list of items needed in a particular area. (See Esri-fire-map.jpg).

There are also other helpful annotations. For example, the map shows current wind patterns, color-coded to show strength. Wind is an important factor in how fires develop. The information can help predict how they might spread, which will affect firefighting efforts and the decisions made by officials and residents of the potentially affected areas.

Schmidbauer says this analysis is important to help let people answer important questions, such as: Should you head for safer ground? Is it too soon to pull out and possibly leave property, pets and belongings without supervision?

Users can choose to see which layers of information appear on the map, including U.S. Geological Survey wildfire activity, topographic maps and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration red flag warnings.

There is also a choice of base maps, over which other data is displayed. They include street, topographic, and terrain maps. In addition, users can separately display sources of images from Flickr or YouTube videos as well as messages from Twitter to develop the real time development of the wildfire.

"All this information can be invaluable when you're trying to save someone else's life or your own," says Schmidbauer. "And it is all made possible through the power of knowing how to apply GIS to problems in society, non-profits, or business."

Learn more about American Sentinel University’s GIS degree programs at http://www.americansentinel.edu/information-technology/b-s-geographic-information-systems.

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