L.A. Takes Inventive Approach to Mapping Wildfires
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Grass fires continued to rage in several Western states this week. Since late December, those fires have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres in Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado. Fires did not erupt in California, but the next time they do, firefighters in Los Angeles will be using a new tool. A Los Angeles firefighter has put together a computerized system that maps a fire in progress. It's being hailed as a revolution in fighting wildfires. Eric Roy reports from member station KCRW.
ERIC ROY reporting:
Los Angeles Firefighter Steve Robinson walks with just the slightest limp, the only visible evidence of the deadly helicopter crash that largely ended his days as an active chopper pilot. Four people died and Robinson's injuries almost killed him. Later as a desk-bound pilot, he became concerned about his career. It helped that he did make occasional sorties over wildfires as a copter navigator.
Mr. STEVE ROBINSON (Firefighter): While on light duty, I began looking for relevant ways to still be--to still contribute to air operations, and we had equipment on board our aircraft that was able to spatially reference things on the ground.
ROY: It's a computer that keeps track of the helicopter's location using radio signals from global positioning satellites. Pilots use it to navigate. But Robinson started playing with the system and found it could show the outline of a fire on screen. He could calculate its size, see which way it was going, and how fast. Robinson began radioing the information to the ground. For the first time, fire bosses could rush crews to exactly where they needed to be instead of having to guess. Robinson became very popular, and he knew there was a lot more information that could be mined, but he wasn't tech-savvy enough to figure it out himself, so he found someone who could.
Mr. RUSS JOHNSON (ESRI): If you think of a map, a hard-copy map, you can't change it. You look at it, you use it however you can.
ROY: Russ Johnson is the homeland security manager for ESRI, a Redlands, California-based company that specializes in what's called geographic information system, or GIS mapping. Johnson arranged for ESRI to give Robinson some sophisticated software, and they trained him.
Mr. JOHNSON: The GIS is a map that's digitally displayed to you, and you add features to it based upon what you want to see. So underneath those maps is a lot of databases with a lot of information that allows you to access it very intuitively, i.e., where it is on the planet or where it is geographically.
ROY: Think of it as a computerized version of old-fashioned clear plastic map overlays where you can look at a number of individual aspects such as topography, escape routes and weather conditions, or view all of them at once.
Mr. JOHNSON: And I can ask the map, `Show me all of the areas where I have extremely flammable vegetation that sits on a greater-than-30-degree slope, that faces the sun to the west during the hottest part of the day, that's within 200 yards of any homes.'
ROY: Robinson says the software also lets you zoom in on areas of interest.
Mr. ROBINSON: As you get very tight, you can actually see right down to the fire hydrants. If I were to use the identify tool, I could click on an individual fire hydrant, find out the size of the hydrant and what type of main is feeding that hydrant.
ROY: That map, constantly updated, helps firefighters see at a glance where a fire is burning most fiercely, where to move to block its path, or if they should fall back.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
ROY: On the tarmac at the LA Fire Department Air Operations Center, Robinson points to the underside of a helicopter nose, designed to hold a new high-definition video camera that can also sense heat and can point hot spots. But he's frustrated. To get his multi-layered digital maps to focus on the ground, the copter has to land so Robinson can physically pull a data stick out of the computer, walk inside headquarters and plug it in there. Robinson says field commanders need a high-tech mobile command truck able to downlink his maps and display them on screen.
Mr. ROBINSON: And the vehicle's already been specced out. Somehow we have to find funding for it.
ROY: Los Angeles firefighters say Robinson's GIS system is one big reason why no one died and so few homes were lost in a 24,000-acre fire last September. At one point it looked like the flames might jump the vital US 101 freeway. Robinson told commanders the fire would get there hours earlier than they expected.
For NPR News, I'm Eric Roy in Los Angeles.
HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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