Data, Analytics Help Fight Forest Fires - InformationWeek
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9/3/2015
06:07 AM
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Data, Analytics Help Fight Forest Fires

Cameron Tongier of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Branch spoke with InformationWeek from his temporary office near a fire line in Idaho. He's one of several front-line wildfire managers we spoke with about the long arc of data analysis that leads up to daily situation reports for wildfire managers.

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Eight million acres blackened across seven US states. More than 20,000 firefighters called into action. Multiple lives lost. All this, and by some measures the 2015 wildfire season is below average.

Wildfire season in the US typically begins after the spring rains and continues until the start of winter. While there haven't been as many forest fires this season as in a normal year, the sheer number of acres involved has set records. To fight these fires, government agencies use aerial tankers, vehicles of all descriptions, shovels and pulaskis -- and serious data analysis.

Data about wildfires is gathered from a wide range of sources and includes real-time reporting, satellite imaging, and historical data. Data modeling tools and fire simulators are essential in guiding firefighters on the front lines of today's fires, as well as in predicting what the future holds.

Data gathering is one of the key tasks performed by the first responders who arrive at an ignition event, but observation and analysis begin long before the first spark meets dry tinder on a forest floor. The scientists and technicians who collect and analyze the data, using it for models, predictions, and real-time situation updates, work in labs around the country and often head out onto the fire line when conditions are severe.

[ What could possibly go wrong? Read 7 Data Center Disasters You'll Never See Coming. ]

Cameron Tongier is one of those scientists. Geo-spatial coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Branch, Tongier spoke with InformationWeek from his temporary office near a fire line in Idaho. He described the long arc of data analysis that leads up to daily situation reports for fire managers.

Season Before The Season

"We're collecting data all the time," Tongier said. "We have remote weather stations set up all over the public land system. They're strategically placed to measure hourly weather around the clock, and we can take those and make correlations to field moisture. We can start to see drying trends, so we can set up the Smokey Bear signs that say 'low/medium/high' fire danger."

Cameron Tongier, geo-spatial coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Branch

(Image: Courtesy of Cameron Tongier)

Cameron Tongier, geo-spatial coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Branch

(Image: Courtesy of Cameron Tongier)

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), a unit that coordinates fire management activities among many different federal agencies, there are nearly 2,200 interagency Remote Automatic Weather Stations (RAWS) located throughout the US. While data from these stations is used for more than fire management, the data is constantly streamed to computers at the NIFC via the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES). The NIFC data is combined with real-time data coming into fire managers so that Tongier's group can start calculating danger potential in specific geographic areas.

As the danger climbs, the organizations that coordinate through the NIFC begin to shift their emphases. "If we know we're starting to get into critical danger, we'll start bringing resources in and pre-position them," Tongier said.

Managing An Incident

One of the critical data points would seem to be the simplest because it answers a binary question: Is something actually on fire? Many different data assets go into providing this basic answer.

"We have lookouts, and typically [they spot] the first wisp of smoke you see after a lightning storm," Tongier said. Lookout data is typically conveyed by phone or radio from people positioned in classic fire watch towers, and it's the first data that goes into the dispatch system.

Personnel in watch towers aren't the only ones on the lookout for danger. "We fly a lot of planes during the daytime to scrub the forest and look for stuff," Tongier said. "We also have patrols to look for things."

USFS volunteer fire lookout Charles White at the Osborne Fire Finder at Vetter Mountain Lookout in the Angeles National Forest. The Osborne Fire Finder is a device made in the 1920s and still in use today.

(Image: Charles White via Wikipedia)

USFS volunteer fire lookout Charles White at the Osborne Fire Finder at Vetter Mountain Lookout in the Angeles National Forest. The Osborne Fire Finder is a device made in the 1920s and still in use today.

(Image: Charles White via Wikipedia)

Information from the ground is combined with Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite imagery to spot initial fire incidents, noted Tongier. "That's part of my day," he said. "I'll look at MODIS data and see where the starts are. You can see, after a lighting storm, if the fire has any teeth to it."

MODIS is comprised of two instruments that sit on a pair of satellites, Terra and Aqua, that are in polar orbits. The satellites are deployed so that one is over Earth's northern hemisphere in the morning, the other in the afternoon, and the entire surface of the planet is covered every 24 to 48 hours.

Brad Quayle is the program leader for the Rapid Disturbance Assessment and Services (RDAS) program within the Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center. In a telephone interview, he talked about the kind of data the Forest Service gets from satellites -- and what analysts do with it once it's in the system.

[ Data gathering and analysis are crucial tools in fighting wildfires. Read Using Data To Fight Wildfires: An Inside Look. ]

"We basically map everything that can be detected. Agricultural burns and wildfires are both detected," Quayle said, though he was quick to explain that the satellite instruments can detect far more than very hot events.

The data is also used for long-term risk modeling. For example, information on the types and amounts of potential wildfire fuel is compiled through Landscape Fire and Resource Management Planning Tools (LANDFIRE), a shared program between the wildland fire management programs of the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service and US Department of the Interior. That data is compiled at 30-meter resolution across the entirety of the US and is updated every other year.

(Continued on next page)

 

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
9/14/2015 | 5:02:05 PM
Controlled vs. proscribed
Controlled burn might be worse for PR but in a sense it was controlled by directing it to certain areas by digging trenches or wetting areas to prevent it from jumping (most of the time.) I've always found it interesting how quickly life returns to normal after a wildfire (or controlled burn). Touring one of the long needle pine forests I stumbled upon a wild turkey nest with over a dozen eggs. It must have started laying the day after a controlled/proscribed burn when the ground was still warm from the fire. With this devastating amount of wild fires I wonder how long it will be before the flora and fauna return to business as usual.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/9/2015 | 10:07:46 AM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
Brian, very interesting. Thanks. You seem to know a lot about birds. :) -Susan
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/9/2015 | 10:00:29 AM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
Curt, I can tell you are an omnibus geek. :) Thanks for the link. I so very much would like to have all your knowledge. Learning about this plant and its habitat is something. -Susan
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
9/9/2015 | 12:50:03 AM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
@Curt, that is a great point about controlled vs. prescribed burns and the meaning that it communicates. I am reminded of a report from the National Academy of Sciences titled "Warming World: Impact by Degree". The report says that an average temperature increase of 1C degree would result in 200-400% increase in wildfires. Imagine the ecological disaster and the PR nightmare that it might cause for the firefighters.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2015 | 10:37:09 AM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
@Brian, your comment brings up one really interesting point: You refer to a "controlled burn." That term has gone out of favor with foresters, who now use "prescribed burn" for an intentional fire. They found that "controlled burn" implied a level of actual control that doesn't exist, so people would get upset if an intentional fire jumped a fire line or caused a lot of smoke. Prescribed burns are the same thing, but seem to be better PR.

The foresters I talk with would love it if they only had to think about forests -- people are the most challenging part of their jobs!
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
9/4/2015 | 11:30:19 PM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
@Susan, some of these wonderful birds will only nest in regenerated vegetation while, others prefer regenerated vegetation as their source of nutrition. Birds that are black in color can find a natural advantage to feed in post-fire locations because of the camouflage that is created. For territorial animals, a wildfire can be viewed as a reset button that allows territory to be redefined. All these variables can make the process of a controlled burn, a science as well as an art.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/4/2015 | 4:15:47 PM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
@Susan, I'm afraid I'm an omnibus geek! I'm not a life-long Floridian but I've always spent a lot of time outdoors and I do love it down here.

The sandhill rosemary is an amazing plant that is an integral part of our pine flatlands. It's interesting in that it shares the habitat with the sand pine -- a smallish pine tree with needles that smell just like oranges if you crush them between your fingers. 
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/4/2015 | 2:49:42 PM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
Brian, how is their preferred living environment? -Susan
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/4/2015 | 2:01:15 PM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
Fascinating, Curt. Super interesting. Thank you so much. As I was reading and learning about those examples of how fire helps some species I was fascinated as well of your knowledge on these forest issues and the species living in it. Then I got the answer: the Master Naturalist program. :) I had forgotten about that. That plant related to the rosemary sounds evil. :/ The oak seems to know about surviving. -Susan
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
9/3/2015 | 9:43:29 PM
Re: Data analytics cocktail
@Susan, fire is good for life. Some plants have evolved to live in an environment of cyclical fires and in turn, an entire ecosystem of animals depends upon these plants to survive. If wildfire is completely eliminated then, it will affect diversity. For example, the Mountain Plover and Warbler birds dependent on fires for the creation of their preferred living environment.
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