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GIS technology aids in effective response to California wildfires

Situational awareness data is key to fighting wildfires like the Camp and Woolsey fires


As of this article’s publication, news outlets report that 88 people have been killed in the Camp fire in Northern California, making it the deadliest fire in state history.


By Kurt Binversie, Faculty Member, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Wildfires are raging in California and the heartbreak is widespread. As of this article’s publication, news outlets report that 88 people have been killed in the Camp fire in Northern California, making it the deadliest fire in state history. In addition to the devastating loss of life, the fire has burned more than 152,250 acres and destroyed nearly 17,000 structures. In Southern California near Los Angeles, the Woolsey fire has killed at least three people, burned more than 96,000 acres, and destroyed an estimated 1,500 structures.

Thousands of people have been affected by these wildfires, with multiple reports of residents just barely making it out of the fire’s path in time. Satellite images show entire towns destroyed by the fires.

Thousands of firefighters are battling these wildfires. They’re using traditional firefighting methods like digging fire lines, beating down brush to reduce fuel sources, and dispersing water to stop the spread of the flames. They’re also relying on technology and data. In a previous article, I wrote about how Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) technology provides real-time data during hurricane disaster relief and recovery. This same technology is also being used to keep responders and the public updated, in real-time, about the spread of the fires and the areas most threatened by their unpredictable and uncontrollable nature.

Accessing GIS data for real-time information on spread of wildfires

There are many public and private entities providing GIS data about natural disasters. For example, the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Corporation is a leader in providing GIS data about wildfire spread and response efforts to the public. Through its Disaster Response Program, ESRI has created a real-time portal that allows anyone with an internet connection to access a live feed and sensor data coming from both commercial- and government-operated satellites.

In addition, this portal allows access to dashboards with various wildfire activity maps across the United States, including the California Fire Situation Awareness dashboard, the U.S. Wildlife dashboard, and a story map of the smoke forecast for the continental U.S.. The U.S. Wildlife dashboard provides data that shows the total number of current wildlife fires, wildlife fires by state, and the cause of each fire.

GIS data is only as good as the information reported, which is why it’s so beneficial to link data from various sources into one platform. For example, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has a GIS Fire Situation Awareness portal that is a one-stop portal to all kinds of information associated with response.

The portal’s features include current weather conditions linked to an advanced weather application called Windy, which provides information on wind direction, as well as temperatures, cloud coverage, and a seven-day forecast. The Fire Situation Awareness portal also includes data like the Santa Ana Fire Threat Index that has predictive analysis about future conditions and threats to the region.

Another great source for GIS data is the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection that provides information about structural damage in the aftermath of wildlife fires. The agency has also created a GIS evacuation portal with information about evacuation notices.

The federal government also provides robust and extensive information about the wildfires in California. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides its own Wildfire Incident Journal and publicly available information with the assistance of the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination on wildland fire support. The journal has up-to-date population information including the number of seniors, children, and households impacted by the fires.

NASA Earth Science Disaster program also provides valuable GIS data by using short-wave infrared light to highlight the active fire. Similar to the State of California, the United States Forestry Service provides remote sensing fire data services and the Environmental Protection Agency continues to monitor air quality. Lastly, the National Interagency Fire Center is always on call to depict wildlife fires across the United States using various data sources over a simple topographical or satellite map of the country.

GIS portals are becoming an indispensable tool for all those impacted by natural disasters, including first responders, state and local governments, businesses, and the public. These portals continue to grow in number and sophistication as they consolidate enormous amounts of data from numerous sources. This valuable information can be linked and analyzed in various ways to provide real-time situational awareness needed to save lives.

About the author
Kurt Binversie is an active-duty Marine with more than 19 years of dedicated service. He is currently the imagery chief as part of Production and Analysis Company, Intelligence Support Battalion. He holds a Master of Science and Technology degree from the National Intelligence University and is a graduate of National Defense Intelligence College (B.A. Intelligence). Binversie is currently an adjunct professor with American Military University. To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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