Real-time fire data system embraced by Forest Service
The system transforms wildlands into a "cyber world of information"
By Ryan Maye Handy
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — From its first hours, David Blankinship knew how many firefighters, aircraft and dollars were being used to fight the Waldo Canyon fire — and he watched it all unfold on his laptop in California.
The former Colorado Springs Fire Department employee has created a computer system that transforms wildland firefighting into a cyber world of information, where such things as fire costs and minute-by-minute infrared images can be viewed by crews on the line.
"It was kind of like watching it through the matrix," Blankinship said.
Blankinship co-founded Intterra, a software company, while working for the fire department. He went on to create computerized systems for local California fire departments, and when the U.S. Forest Service sought to create a data system of its own, Blankinship and his company won a four-year contract.
"He's actually realized the dream of mine that I've worked for," said Sean Triplett, a geospatial systems manager for the National Interagency Fire Center, which contracted with Blankinship. "My dream has always been a one-stop shopping, intelligence-type based system."
But Blankinship isn't just a tech-guy who designs systems — he speaks the firefighting language, Triplett said.
"We use David and his company to provide us with subject matter expertise in the world of (geo)spatial mapping," he said. "But he's unique in the fact that he also understands the incident command system and has a wildfire background."
For NIFC, Blankinship created the Fire Enterprise Geospatial Portal, a program that pools data with satellite imagery. Blankinship maintains the system — fixes glitches and explains how it works — until his contract times out. The program is designed for click-of-a-button ease that takes no time, even in the heat of the fire line, to figure out.
"The biggest thing is that it's bringing together data that's never been brought together," Triplett explained. "It's actually allowing us to see all at once current and historical fire activity. And you can see resources and see as they are being moved around."
Imagine an online map picturing a fire with a series of dropdown map menus, each one opening a new bank of information. The system streamlines mountains of data onto one Internet page that spares incident commanders and firefighters wasted time and the headache of multiple maps, Triplett said. While working fires in Alaska, Triplett used to dread waking up each morning to check multiple websites for weather and fire data, and to print multiple maps that each showed different sets of information.
"By the time I've done this, all this information changed," he said.
Everything he was looking at — weather, fire activity, history, topography, resources — should belong on one map, which is exactly what Blankinship's system does.
"We used it on all the fires that I've been on this year," said Triplett. "It's been used quite extensively around the country. The leadership in Washington, D.C., uses it for briefings and updates."
Blankinship spent this summer introducing the software to firefighters on the ground, and when the Waldo Canyon fire started on June 23, he immediately sought — and won — permission to open the programs to officials in his hometown. While the Great Basin Incident Management Team came to fight the fire with its own data systems and mapping devices, Blankinship's system compiled all the same data onto one cyber map, in addition to giving fire crews satellite images not provided by their infrared flights.
Colorado Springs firefighters and city officials in the Emergency Operations Center could tap into the Intterra system for updated counts on resources and new fire perimeters, but after the June 26 firestorm Blankinship's technology helped with a chore that was overwhelming local officials: pinpointing losses.
According to emails sent between city officials on June 28, damage assessors juggled mismatched maps from the fire department and El Paso County, trying to discern obliterated addresses in Mountain Shadows. Three teams walked the streets of the northwest Colorado Springs neighborhood counting addresses, and several different totals of homes lost were tossed among city officials hours before they met with homeowners.
According to emails, Christina Randall, a wildfire mitigation administrator for the fire department working to count lost homes, was concerned by how quickly the assessment was done.
"I just want you all to know that this was a major rush job using maps from AVL, CSFD Mapbook and county parcel data that did not match the ground truthing," she wrote in an email to Bret Waters, manager of the Office of Emergency Management, and Fire Chief Rich Brown, among others, the evening of June 28.
Ultimately, city officials relied on the images Blankinship provided in addition to their street maps for the final count, Blankinship said.
But at 5 a.m. on June 27, while some all-night fire crews were still dousing flames, Blankinship sent an email to Waters telling him that the mid-morning infrared images would provide a relatively precise damage count for homes. Later that morning, the Type 1 incident team sent a reconnaisance plane over the new burn scar to get a preliminary count of 277 homes lost, according to a summary prepared by the Great Basin Incident Management Team, led by Rich Harvey.
Harvey's team presented city and county officials with its tentative estimate - but the forest service satellite imagery, a part of Blankinship's system, proved to be far more accurate. Within two hours of the satellite images being captured from space, fire officals saw before and after images of Mountain Shadows, and came up with a count of 346 homes destroyed - which was ultimately the number released.
"With this evolution, the system provides (information) quickly with the touch of one button - no delay, no expertise," Blankinship recalled in an email. "Just information right when they needed it and were struggling with an estimated number."
From any computer or smart phone, Blankinship can access the software with a password, and it opens a world of cost charts, topographical maps and resource lists for fires in any region in the United States. He relies on satellite images provided by Digital Globe, a satellite imagining company, to track fire behavior. During the Waldo Canyon fire, for instance, the satellites took images of the fire every morning at 11 a.m., giving Blankinship updates on fire growth that weren't reliant on an infrared NIROPS flight, which can only capture images at night.
Blankinship describes the software as "cutting edge" for the fire service - very different from a less tech-oriented "boots on the ground" fire fighting approach.
"It's a geeky thing but it's revolutionary," he said.
Newcomers to the fire world — anyone who has been in the business for less than 10 years — are favoring more technology in fire fighting, Blankinship said.
"If you've been around for longer than that you're a ground pounder, and looking at things on the back of a truck," Blankinship said.
One thing the technology has especially changed is financial accountability, he said.
"In (Washington, D.C.) they are spending huge amounts of money on firefighting," Blankinship explained. "It used to be a lot less transparent. These guys are accountable for the money they spent."
In his computer system, Blankinship can pull up a stratified cost index, which compares similar fires over a period of years to a current fire and its costs. He can analyze where costs were greater and use the system to moderate costs of current fires, he said.
Firefighters can access all this data — updated growth maps, resources, and more — from the fire lines.
Within seconds the software can draw a fire perimeter based on coordinates, and crews with handheld devices can access maps. During initial attack, crews on the fire lines can establish command points, indicate resources and pinpoint staging areas. It's a collaborative editing system, meaning that anyone can participate and contribute data.
"This is changing the game, especially for local departments," Blankinship said.