Wildfires have ravaged Northern California this fall, leaving more than 100,000 residents temporarily or permanently displaced. On top of the destruction, first responders and state agencies have been stretched thin dealing with the crisis.

Steve Hawks (Photo: Ryan Levi/KQED)

To improve communication with residents, and lessen the workload for damage inspectors, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) partnered with GIS software developer Esri on a new interactive map that communicates the status of the homes and buildings across Napa and Sonoma counties.

CAL FIRE has been using Esri’s Collector app since 2014, but this is the first time it has deployed an interactive map, according to Steve Hawks, deputy chief of wildland fire prevention engineering at CAL FIRE. Before deploying the Collector app, all of the inspection information was handwritten on paper forms–unsurprisingly, Hawks said there was a significant push to go digital.

The map’s interface is very user friendly, with damaged structures displaying in yellow and destroyed structures displaying in red. Users can move the map around and zoom in on different neighborhoods. The page also gives users links to additional resources.

The new interactive map shows wildfire damage in Northern California.

The process to update the map is similarly user friendly, Hawks said. Once the fire has been contained, firefighters and damage inspectors begin the process of cataloging building damage. Personnel in the field have either a smartphone or a tablet with Esri’s Collector app installed. Within the app, inspectors can document if a home or building has been damaged or destroyed. The app can function in two modes–online and offline. In online mode, inspectors can update the app in real time as long as the device is connected to Wi-Fi or has a data plan. In offline mode, inspectors can save their updates in the app and the information is synced to the map once the devices connect to Wi-Fi. Aside from residents checking on their homes, the data is also shared with affected counties and cities to help inform their recovery and response strategies.

With the success of Esri’s Collector app and map template, fire officials are also starting to become interested in Esri’s other offerings.

Chris Ferner is a disaster response technology specialist for Esri. (Photo: Esri)

“Firefighters are starting to train on other Esri apps outside of Collector, including Explorer and Survey123,” said Chris Ferner, disaster response technology specialist at Esri. Both of these apps, Ferner explained, allow firefighters to quickly gather information and send it back to the command post. This new information will enable stronger real-time decision-making to fight fires more effectively, as well as keep citizens and first responders safer.

“Using the Story Map app is also quite common in wildfire situations. It helps explain to citizens what’s happening with the fire, what firefighters are doing, and what does this mean to protect a structure from a wildfire, as opposed to a structural fire,” Ferner said. This helps the public understand what is happening and become more supportive of the firefighting efforts.

In terms of what other state and local government problems Esri’s technology can solve, Ferner thinks the answer is limitless.

“I would say everything,” Ferner said. “Just about anything that has a ‘where’ can be collected and information can be shared. It can be used for everything from mapping locations of endangered frog species, to understanding the migration of languages spoken across the world. For natural disasters, it can help us see where the people who need food and water are to where our resources and first responders are being sent. Where isn’t mapping technology applicable?”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs