In Oklahoma, fighting fires with better data

In Oklahoma, fighting fires with better data

When people think of wildfires, they usually think of California and the mountain west region.  But Oklahoma faces wildfire threats as well.

Last year alone, two separate wildfires in the state (one of which started as a controlled burn) destroyed 20 homes each; one person was killed. Mark Goeller, assistant director of the Oklahoma Forestry Services knows that even during the winter months, his agency must be on the lookout.

“We’re a transitional state,” Goeller said in a telephone interview. “Eastern Oklahoma is forested, southeast Oklahoma has commercial timberlands from a number of different companies.  As you come into western Oklahoma, you get into the great plains, which has a lot of grassland, and in northwest Oklahoma you get into the highlands and a lot of sage brush. So our state is extremely varied ... because of that and the variation in rain fall in the state, we have fires here year-round.”

According to Goeller, radios long served as the standard method for firefighters to communicate with the incident commander, who may be in a helicopter overlooking the scene or at the main base during wildfires. Firefighters on the ground also relied on maps that were anywhere from several hours to several days old, which made an already-dangerous job even more so.

Since early 2014, however, Forestry Services has a fighting chance thanks to Esri’s Collector for ArcGIS application. The app shows nearly real-time ArcGIS maps to firefighters through their mobile devices, providing a clear picture of the operational environment. Firefighters arriving at a fire can now quickly devise a strategy based on geodata detailing what fuels may be nearby, the weather and the local topography.

“Traditionally ... we have radio communication; with this app we can support that with a visual -- it’s an enhancement to our oral communication,” Goeller said. “We can have a map of an area, a topography map, an aerial photograph or just a street map” as well as near real-time transfer of data, he said.

“It still depends on a person entering the data, but if there’s someone in the air or on the ground that can map the fire’s location, that gives advance situational awareness to the guys on the ground," he added. Users can report if a fire has made a turn, for example, which gives the firefighters near real-time information on the fire’s progress, Goeller added. “All of this significant because with a fire the danger continues to escalate as time goes on.”

The Collector app, which can be used on both iOS and Android phones and tablets, gives wildland firefighters all the information they need in one place. With the app, Oklahoma's Forestry Services can now fight fires safely as the incident manager can now set perimeter lines faster and see the location of every firefighter through their phones.

While the primary use of the app is to fight fires, it has been useful to Forestry Services in a bevy of other ways, including prescribed burns, urban forestry tree assessments and even disaster response after a tornado.

“Last year when a tornado went through a town called Bridge Creek, the highway patrol used the app to map the path of the tornado and the debris field around it," Goeller said. “We also use the app for forest management, health, insect disease diagnosis. We’ve also used it to track southern pine needle outbreak spots, making it very easy to take care of from the ground.”

For Goeller and the Forestry Services, the Collector app represents what could be an unlimited resource helping them in hundreds of ways and keeping their staff safer at the same time.

“There are all kinds of things we can use this app for," Goeller said.  "We’re just touching the surface.”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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