Coffee (Stout) Break! Today’s Topic: Wildfire Mitigation Using GIS Technology

Bonnie Dunkel By: Bonnie Dunkel

 

With recent headlines surrounding the unwanted wildfires that are currently devastating California and other states, we sat down with Lowell Ballard, leader of our Geospatial Technology group, to discuss the technology used manage and mitigate impacts from these natural (and sometimes man-made) disasters.  Lowell prefers his coffee in stout form, which is how we ended up at Richmond’s popular brewery, The Answer, talking about the web and mobile solutions that Timmons Group has delivered for our clients focused on providing community safety through wildfire prevention, risk mitigation and suppression.

How is a Technology firm involved in Wildfire Management and Mitigation?

Timmons Group’s Geospatial Division has over 100 people, many of whom are focused on wildfire and natural resources work.  We have developed WRAPs (Wildfire Risk Assessment Portals) for multiple state agencies across the United States. The WRAP uses several web-mapping applications that make wildfire risk information and planning tools readily available to these agencies and the public. We are also heavily involved in developing mobile apps for assisting states and localities in mapping Communities-at-Risk and in the development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs).

How do these applications help with wildfire management, mitigation and prevention?

We work hard to align our efforts to the National Cohesive Strategy.  This strategy has a three-component framework including vegetative-fuels management and landscape resiliency, making communities more fire-adaptive, and ensuring emergency response entities have the capacity to respond to and suppress unwanted wildfire.  Our apps are designed to include these critical elements of the National Strategy.

Our goal is to create easy-to-use interfaces that allow State, Federal and Local governments to understand where the highest-priority areas are in the State and assist them in prioritizing outreach and investments in mitigation and management activities to reduce risk to residents and other critical assets including watersheds that provide drinking water.  The prioritization process involves having a comprehensive view of wildfire risk across the entire landscape, locations of communities that are less fire-adapted, and capacity of initial attack / suppression resources.  Through better understanding of where all the elements of the Cohesive Strategy meet, the States with their federal and other partners, can better align their work and investments.

Wildfires are fast and often unpredictable. How does technology help agencies prepare in advance for such an event?

Although exact timing and location of wildfires cannot be predicted precisely, the WRAP allows States and their partners to identify which areas are more at risk for wildfires due to the presence of vegetative fuels both close to communities, but also in more remote areas that are harder to reach quickly to stop a small fire from becoming a large one.  Within the WRAP, our Focus Area Manager (FAM) tool enables them to prioritize where they will invest in fuels mitigation and community outreach across the landscape.  Wildfire specialists use FAM to map out areas of focus within the State, and the FAM tool then calculates and shows the specialist the area’s score based on various factors including wildland fire threat and risk.  This process allows the State to better target investments on the landscape as well as show outcomes using consistent data.

Also within WRAP, we have built a Community Assessor tool, where States and local partners can map out Communities-at-Risk and perform field assessments using iOS and Android apps, which results in a consistent calculated wildfire hazard score for each community based structures, surrounding environment and local suppression capacity.  Mitigation strategies are automatically derived from the assessments and are used to help communities become more fire adapted.

We are also working closely with the USFS and the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) to provide tools to better align Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grants to Fire Departments that have jurisdictional response areas with substantial risk from unwanted wildfire.  These grants help organize, train, and equip fire departments in rural areas and rural communities to prevent and suppress fires.
 

How does the community benefit from a wildfire agency investing in a software application?

Overall, it leads to safer communities and more wildfire-resilient landscapes. Through better understanding where you have elevated risk for unwanted wildfire and homes that are not fire-adapted, States, their partners, and residents can prioritize and act.  Unwanted wildfire cannot be 100% prevented, so reaching out to citizens with this information will

result in more Fire-Adapted Communities whose residents are more informed and prepared to safely coexist with wildland fire.

What is one thing that most people don’t realize about wildfires?

Not all wildfires are bad! Controlled, prescribed burns rejuvenate growth and restore diversity to our landscapes.  There is a big difference between wanted, and unwanted, fire.  Fire is a natural and extremely healthy occurrence on the landscape.  We need fire for many reasons, but managing unwanted wildfires and mitigating the risk to communities, landscapes, priority watersheds and other critical assets requires tools and technology and that’s where Timmons Group plugs in.

To learn more about Timmons Group’s wildland fire protection and planning applications, visit http://www.timmons.com/projects/category/wildland-fire

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