Geography Awareness Week 2014

Geography Awareness Week is a movement to expose you, the public, to geography.

It all got started in 1987 by the National Geographic Society when their staff became alarmed at how geo-illiterate U.S. citizens have become. Since geography is no longer taught in earnest in many U.S. schools (having suffered from the reader/writing/arithmetic focus), most folks are not aware of how geography shapes their cities, farms, and the interactions between humans and the environment. Not to mention all the physical processes on this earth that go on regardless of what we do.

To help us all better understand the world around us, Geography Awareness Week was created to promote geography in our lives to

understand where things are found, why they are there, and how they develop and change over time.

~ from the National Geographic Geography Awareness About page.


Each year, Geography Awareness Week has a theme associated with it. This year, that theme is “The Future of Food”. Hmmm, you’d think I’d be all over that theme, but to be honest, I don’t have any particular expertise in the department (other that eating it), so I’ll leave that to the food connoisseurs out there. Check out this interesting Thanksgiving food map put together by the staff over at ESRI:

Where green beans come from (ESRI, 2014). Click on image to access the interactive map.
Where green beans come from (ESRI, 2014). Click on image to access the interactive map.

This interactive map highlights where the food on your Thanksgiving dinner plate likely came from. I was surprised to learn that the green beans we eat are grown all over the United States.

Did you know that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow one (only one) almond?

Map image from Mother Jones.
Map image from Mother Jones.

Check out this article from Mother Jones to find out more about where food is grown in California and how much water is needed. The article also highlights which cities in California use the most water.

What you’ll get from DMS this week:

As a GIS professional, I deal with geography every single day. Most of the work I do involves showing where things are and how they relate to each other. This week, I’ll go beyond that by highlighting places on the internet you can go to find out about maps, test your geographic knowledge, explain exactly what it is we GIS folks do, explore how geographic shapes conflict, and then move us out beyond this world.

We’ve Never Seen This Before

Did you see that?

The internet (and the written word for that matter) has its drawbacks. One of which is that you could not see me roll my eyes back at the title of this post.

It’s easy to forget history. It’s in the past, right? Can’t do anything about it now so why give it any thought? There are bills to pay, people to see, and that random YouTube video demanding your attention. Who’s got time for the history?

Well, as the saying goes, if one does not know one’s history, one is doomed to repeat it.

And since plants and ecological processes are not people with memories, rest assured they repeat themselves.

So, whenever I read that someone is shocked at recent fire behavior, I can’t help but trudge out the many fires that were “unprecedented”.

The History

…clouds of smoke have been sent forth from a tremendous fire… (1)

…fires raging from San Bernardino to Jacumba. (2)

A dense volume of smoke overhung the city…from the combined influence of the weather and the fires raging in the mountains. (3)

Those media quotes sound familiar, don’t they? However, they use language we don’t hear of too often now-a-days. Today, we see words like “catastrophic” and “devastating”. “Raging” seems to have gone out of vogue.

Wondering when those quotes were printed?

  1. September 11, 1869 in the Los Angeles Star
  2. September 21, 1869 also in the L.A. Star. Note: the distance between San Bernardino and Jacumba (on the border) is over 150 miles.
  3. October 8, 1875 in the L.A. Star.

In 1987, R.A. Minnich published a paper in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (77:599-618). A research brief of the paper can be found here on the California Fire Science Consortium (CFSC) website. The title of his paper is rather long, so I won’t bore you with it, but I will summarize CFSC’s summary.

Prior to fire suppression in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, frequent fires were reported in the growing metropolis of Los Angeles. The populous and officials were so concerned about these fires they even studied them.

USGS reports for the area, dated 1899 and 1900, showed large areas of chaparral had been repeatedly burned with severe damage to soil and water holding capacity. ~ CFSC Research Brief, May 2012, emphasis mine.

In addition to these post-fire effects, presumably started by lightning strikes since many of the reported fires also indicated that a rain event occurred during or prior to the fires, fire behavior was reported to be both smoldering and intense, with frequent reports of “raging infernos”. Not unlike the “catastrophic” fires reported in our media today.

If you’d like to read more (and gain some perspective), check out this paper original published in Ecological Applications (Vol. 17, No.3). Talk about incendiary language (“fearful flames”). And let’s not forget the summer of 1988. While not in California, that year, the fires in and around Yellowstone National Park exhibited the widest range of fire behavior you can imagine. And it was often reported that the “catastrophic” fires ruined the park. But it didn’t. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the park experienced temperatures high enough to kill deep roots. Read about what scientists are saying about those fires here.

Remember, back before our public agencies started putting wildfires out, the weather or geography did it. Either a large enough rain even occurred to put the fire out or it ran out of vegetation (fuel) to burn. While our current and recent fire suppression policies may have altered the frequency and distribution of wildfire on the landscape, it sure as heck didn’t stop it. And while fire suppression may have contributed to “extreme” fires, it is nothing new under the sun.

In addition to the likelihood that fires (both small, low intensity fires and large, high intensity fires) will continue to dominate our landscape, our ever growing population also continues to increase the intersection of human settlements and our wildlands (called the Wildland Urban Interface or WUI), providing ever more opportunities for accidental fire starts and arson activity.

So, yes, fires are getting more frequent, and they are impacting relatively larger areas. But that doesn’t mean it’s new or unprecedented on the landscape.

Fire is Scary

Photo courtesy of John McColgan and The Public Safety Electronic Post Office

When you have a wall of flame in front of you, puckering your skin and standing your hair on end, believe me, you are scared (shitless, I think is the term often used here).

And fire does destroy. It destroys forest/plant systems, shelter and food sources for many wildlife species, and our homes. In addition, it also rejuvenates forest/plant systems and provides new opportunities for wildlife. And, one might say it presents interesting challenges to us. Regardless, fire as a process of change on our California landscapes has been happening for millennium and there is nothing we can do stop that (except, of course, change our climate – but that’s another topic all together).

But just because we are scared of something that is dangerous doesn’t mean we need to over-react and attempt to eliminate it. For the past hundred years or so, we’ve tried that – and it doesn’t work.

What To Do?

Post-fire view of the King Fire, Pollack Pines, CA. Photo by P.E. Mandeno.
Post-fire view of the King Fire, Pollack Pines, CA. Photo by P.E. Mandeno.

In my next post, I’ll highlight some of the things we are learning to do right when it comes to wildfire in California. There are still many things we are doing wrong, but we know now that eliminating fire from our ecosystem will not save us from devastating fires. They happened before we got here and they’ll happen after we are long gone. If we intend to stay for the long haul, what we must do instead is learn to live with fire.


GIS Day 2014

Is coming!

If you are in Santa Rosa, CA next week, come on by the Finley Community Center on the corner of W College Ave and Stony Point Road/Marlow Road.

This free, educational event will be held on Wednesday, November 19th from 9am to 3pm. You’ll get a chance to interact with many GIS professionals, vendors, and community agencies. We have several speakers on the Sonoma Veg Map, the South Napa Earthquake response, restoration planning on the Napa River, and much more.

And we’ll also have a few special emergency vehicles showing off their mobile mapping technology.

For more information and to register for GIS Day 2014 go to North Bay GIS Day. If you register, you’ll automatically be entered to win a Griffin Map Design “It’s a GIANT world…” t-shirt:

See you there!


Loma Prieta Anniversary

I almost forgot I created this map (click on it to get a bigger version):

Loma Prieta Earthquake 1989 v2

I did it quite some time ago and I should probably update it to a web map (another thing to put on the to-do list…).

Regardless, this anniversary along with the recent quake in Napa, California is a good reminder to update your emergency preparedness kit.

What’s in your kit?

Frankly, my is rather poor. I have a 5-gallon bucket with a couple of jugs of water along with a flashlight – batteries are near dead. I definitely need to update that! From the Red Cross, here’s a basic list of items to have at the ready:

  • Water—one gallon per person, per day (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)
  • Food—non-perishable, easy-to-prepare items (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio (NOAA Weather Radio, if possible)
  • Extra batteries
  • First aid kit – Anatomy of a First Aid Kit
  • Medications (7-day supply) and medical items
  • Multi-purpose tool
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items
  • Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies)
  • Cell phone with chargers
  • Family and emergency contact information
  • Extra cash
  • Emergency blanket
  • Map(s) of the area

Where were you during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake?

I was at my apartment in Davis, California – asleep (yes, I take afternoon naps). It woke me up, but only long enough to say, “What was that?”

Sixty three victims of the quake were not so lucky.

Bigger and more means better, right?

In the case of wildfires, not necessarily. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean worse. The fire landscape, and our place in it is a lot more complicated than that.

While the recent King fire raged this past summer, my husband commented that it was unprecedented.

Okay, he didn’t use that word exactly, but essentially, he felt concerned about the size and severity of the fire. And while I agree the King fire was unacceptably large and severe, I also want to stress that fire of any size is not an uncommon occurrence in our California landscapes. Not only is it common, but it is a very natural occurrence and, sometimes, necessary.

And here’s the clincher, even fires that burn hundreds of thousands of acres are common and necessary. In fact, the size of fires we see today pale to obscurity when compared to estimated pre-1800s acres burned. Remember, back then, there were no fire-fighters around to put out a blaze. No air tankers with loads of retardant to dump. And no (or few) homes to burn.

So, yes, fires like the King fire are terrible. They are often started by stupid humans and burn so severely they wipe out large chunks of our forests. But, do keep in mind that on the grand scheme of things, it’s just a drop in the “reservoir” bucket of fire “potential” (see my post Every day is a burn day).

Recent Fire History

Each year, CalFire (along with federal and local agencies) records and documents all fires that occur within and on the immediate border of California. They compile the data and offer it to the public in GIS format. I often use this data layer when compiling maps for reports. So, let’s look at the numbers. In particular, in this post I’ll look at the last 100 years of data compiled by CalFire. In later posts, I would like to compare these numbers to paleo-fire history data. However, spatial estimates of fire size based on fire scars is not very easy to come by. But I’ll take a look at what we do know and extrapolate from there and we’ll see just how “unprecedented” fires like the King fire (2014), or even the Rim fire of 2013, are.

More Fire

For the past 100 years in California, though the number of fires reported each year varies, there’s no denying that each year we see more fire-starts. In addition, once these fires get “out of hand”, they consume what we think are significant swaths of forested land.


The graph above shows 100 years of reported* fire history in California. The red line graphs the total number of fires for each year. We see that it varies from year to year, sometimes significantly so. However, the overall trend (marked as a dark, gray line) is increasing. Each year, the number of fires reported has gone up.

In addition, the number of fires over 100,000 acres are becoming more frequent. Prior to 1970s, fires of this size occurred once every ten years or so. But now? Every year. In 2002, 2003, and 2007, we had two large fires occurring in one fire season.


So, yes, there are more wildland fires dotting our dry landscape and they are getting bigger. This is obvious.

But – is that a bad thing?

Paleo-fire History

Well, if you have a home in Sierra Nevada, or if you own timber that can burn at the drop of a match, or if you care about our ecosystem, then, yes, it is.

However, it doesn’t mean we need less fire, but more.

Getting numbers for fire history prior to European settlement of California is rather hard, but we do have extensive evidence of fire regularly impacting our landscape. This evidence comes in the form of charcoal sediments in lake beds and fire scars on trees (both living and dead). Study after study have shown that fire visits our forests as frequently as every 2 years**. It’s not hard to imagine every year, given the right conditions, a fire was burning on the California landscape.

In addition, these fires would burn pretty much all year long. The only thing that stopped them were:

  • A lack of fuel,
  • Relative humidity increased to the point of fire extinction, or
  • A drenching rain came along.

It’s not hard to imagine that these fires managed to burn extensive swaths of California and beyond. Our native plants and the very ecosystem have lived with the threat of fire longer than we’ve been here. In subsequent posts, I’ll argue how modern fire suppression has harmed rather than helped.

Notes and References
  • * Data downloaded from CalFire, Fire Perimeters 2013 data version.
  • Wildfire – A century of failed forest policy edited by George Wuerthner (2006 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology).

Historic Landmarks Web Map


GIS Day 2014 is coming up, and in preparation, I set out for myself to create three web maps.

The first is a map showing the twenty-seven historic landmarks in Sonoma County. Below is a screen shot of the web map as viewed in Google Chrome. It has some nifty functionality such as the bookmarked Zoom locations, a nice grid display of the features on the left-hand side of the screen, and when you click on a point, you can drill down for more information on each locale.


I utilized ESRI’s Shortlist story map template which can be downloaded here. It was quite simple to make and didn’t require any specialized software what-so-ever. You do need an ArcGIS Online account. Go here to create one.

My next two projects utilizing ESRI’s templates will be more complicated and feature derived data products. Those should be fun and I’ll keep you posted once they are completed.

On a separate, but related note, did you notice I mentioned GIS Day? It’s coming up. Like, in about two months! For those of you in the north San Francisco Bay area, mark your calendars (November 19, 2014) and get ready for a fun and educational day at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa, CA.


Build a better trap

There are many in the firefighting community that have long complained about fire shelters. If you’ve ever used one or trained to use one, then you probably wondered how a thin piece of foil is suppose to protect you from fire and hot, deadly gases.

Well, sometimes, it doesn’t.

Today, NPR featured a story about one man trying to improve on the materials used to protect wildland firefighters. In response to his son dying on the Yarnell Hill fire last year, Mr. David Turbyfill has taken it upon himself to find better material to protect firefighters.

While I commend the effort, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the news.

Mr. Turbyfill claims that 20 to 25% of fatalities would be eliminated if his new fire shelters were used. It wasn’t explained in the news piece whether he meant:

1. Of all fatalities on wildland fires, those caused by being burned over (while in a shelter) accounts for 20 to 25% of those fatalities, and those would be eliminated if his new fire shelters were deployed (meaning his fire shelter is truly fire-proof).

Or did he mean:

2. Of the fatalities caused by being burned over (while in a shelter), 20 to 25% would be saved.

If the later is the case (which I suspect – nothing can be “fire-proof”), then what about the other 75 to 80%? They’re just written off as necessary collateral?

Building a better fire shelter will definitely improve the chances of a firefighter surviving terrible choices, but it really will not improve firefighter safety. If you put firefighters in harms way, then they are in harms way.

In order to really make a difference in firefighter safety, we have to stop making terrible choices. Landuse and land protection goals need to be shifted; prioritizing human life over property.

California Parceled

Later this year, a project spearheaded by Karen Beardsley, Managing Director of UC Davis’ Department of Environmental Science and Policy, promises to provide parcel data for the entire state – free of charge.

This project, titled Parcel Data and Protocols, is managed by the Information Center for the Environment (ICE). Their goal is to provide a seamless parcel database with consistent accuracy standards, attributes and land use categories.

In the State of California, as in most states, counties have the responsibility of maintaining the property land base within their boundaries. Most (if not all) counties in California provide the line work of their parcels via their individual websites in some sort of GIS format.

Which is great, but exactly what you get varies and line work at the boundaries of counties do not always match.

In order to full-fill their mission of landuse planning, the Strategic Growth Council funded the Parcel Data and Protocols project so that parcel-data would be consistent throughout the state.

As of writing this blog post, that state-wide, county-level, parcel database is not complete, but it should be available sometime this year. Bookmark their website, if you are interested in this base layer.

Everyday is a burn day

When in the midst of fire season, it is hard to support the notion that we need more fire.

“Are you crazy?!” you might shout, pitchfork and shotgun at the ready.

With California at the start of what could be its worst drought, how can I be thinking about putting more fire out there?

CalFire, the agency responsible for ensuring we don’t all burn to the ground (along with other local and federal fire agencies), has reported that in the first half of 2014, over 2,000 fires have been reported in Calfironia, burning over 17,000 acres. The five-year average for the same interval (Jan through June) is only 1,255 fires burning just over 10,000 acres. The number of fires and acreage burned hasn’t quite doubled, but it is close. Close enough for all of us to feel the heat.

And we can’t forget 2013’s Rim Fire, now can we? The Rim Fire was one of California’s largest wildland fires, burning over 250,000 acres from August 17 to September 6th.

So, why do we need to put more fire on the ground? Why do fire ecologists advocate for more burn days?

Earlier this year, when snow still capped mountains, I attended a fire symposium where John Bailey, Associate Professor at the Oregon State University, gave a rousing talk about “draining our biomass reserve”. He likened the growing biomass accumulation in our forests and open spaces to a reservoir that will soon spill over its banks and into our homes.

While I cringed a little over the mixed metaphor, what he had to say made a lot of sense. Currently, all treatments conducted by all land agencies (private, state, local, federal, tribal, etc) put together only account for something like 1 to 2 percent of the landscape.

Think about that.

The Rim Fire, one the largest fires on record, only accounted for fraction of forested land in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. That leaves countless acres left to burn or otherwise treat the accumulated biomass. So despite all our best efforts, and happenstance (in the case of wildland fires like the Rim Fire), we are barely making a dent in it.

Prior to recent human settlement, western landscapes burned – all the time. The only thing that put them out was a drenching rain event. So, even though California may seemingly lack water, all that lovely green stuff still grows, still dries out, and still becomes available fuels for the inevitable march of fire.

If we don’t burn it, someone’s escaped camp fire will, or an arsonist, or a lightning strike. Whether we want to suck in all that smoke or not, our landscapes will continue to burn.

So, what to do?

Mr. Bailey made a strong case that our fire suppression efforts and technology will never keep pace with the growing accumulation of biomass. It’s got a 100+ year head-start, and without DOD*-sized budgets, trying to put out all those fires is futile. Instead, Mr. Bailey advocates three things:

  1. Build resistance and resilience spatially in our landscapes (that means more work for loggers),
  2. Relax our expectations for fire suppression, especially during moderate conditions, and
  3. During those moderate conditions, take the opportunity to extend prescribed and wildland fire perimeters to encompass an area’s “fireshed” – the idea is to choose the conditions when large fires burn.

Accept, Acknowledge, Anticipate, Adapt

One of the great things about listening to Mr. Bailey’s talk was his humor. He compared our country’s aggressive fire suppression to a sort of addiction. He stressed that those in the fire suppression industry need to accept the fact that suppression is not the answer to our long-term sustainability, acknowledge what does and doesn’t work, strive to anticipate where our combined efforts will be most effective, and adapt as conditions change.

But it’s not just those in the fire industry that need to adopt this strategy. So do you. Without decisive restoration and the integrated use of prescribed fire, many of our landscapes (homes included) are at risk of being burned.

Everyday is a potential burn day.

We shouldn’t let them go by without doing something to actively manage the growing vegetation around us. If you’re a land manager (small or large), consider adopting fire resistant strategies to reduce your fire risk and help us all manage our forests well into the future.

*Department of Defense

Field Day

For those of us stuck behind a computer, it is always nice to get out in the field every now and then.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the North Bay GIS User Group‘s Field Day meeting where four great companies featured their data collection (and dissemination) tools. I thought I’d do a recap just so that I would remember all the cool products and stuff I learned.

There were four presenters at this year’s Field Day: Mapistry, Canogle, Sonoma Land Trust, and TopCon/Engineering Supply Company.


mapistryI met Ryan Janoch, CEO of Mapistry, a new cloud based mapping software. He said he started his company for one reason: so you could do one thing: make a simple map – quickly.

Now, while I have tons of experience making quick, meaningful maps with sophisticated software like ESRI’s ArcMap, others do not. Nor might they have access to that fancy software and a ready database.

No, instead, project managers, specialists, report writers, whomever often have to rely on that one GIS Specialist who’s endlessly busy and pulled in a thousand directions to make their map happen. If you have me on call (which you can, you know, call me), then you have nothing to worry about. I’ll take care of all your mapping needs. But if you don’t have me and all you want is to create a simply map with a few points on it, check out Mapistry’s online service. At the moment, it is free and it just might meet your needs. Plus, you can use it to collect data out in the field.


For those of you on a tight budget, Canogle might be a service out of your league. However, as part of an integrated trail interpretive project, this might just be the thing you are looking for.

Have you ever been walking along a trail and reached one of those wooden boxes that are supposed to contain some interesting facts and/or history on a place only to find that it’s empty or a pack-rat has taken all the brochures and turned it into a nest? Cute critters but you’re out that information. While I’m often left feeling richer after a hike, leaving one of those interpretive sites without the information always makes me feel like I’ve missed out on something.

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could pull out your phone, click a button, and the voice of information fills you in on all you might have missed?

Well, that’s what Canoge can do for any trail. If you manage the interpretive programs for a park, reserve, or any land with interpretative trails, check out what Canogle can do to augment all your great interpretative programs. They provide a service and mobile application that will integrate a map and interpretative information, either on the go or pre-downloaded so all your tech-savvy hikers will never miss a single fact.

Open Data Kit

Joseph Kinyon, GIS Manager for the Sonoma Land Trust, came out to show off all that he’s done with the Open Data Kit (or ODK) suite of mobile mapping tools. Anyone with a bit of time can customize this free software to create data collection forms, upload it to a mobile device for on-the-go data collection, and aggregate the collected data on a server.

The major advantage to this open source software is that it is free. You can use it on any device and you can create data entry forms that are meaningful and pertinent to your project.

The biggest draw back?

It’s not exactly (low-tech) user friendly. If you have some coding experience, you can be up and running in a week. If not, then you are not likely to try this. But for the adventurous (and broke), this is a tool you might want to consider if you are willing to accept the variable accuracy of whatever mobile device you load it on to.

Mr. Kinyon’s example of recording roadkill (yeah, there’s meaningful data in roadkills!), I was impressed with the complexity and ease of use of the tool. I might be using it myself in future projects.

TopCon – Engineering Supply Company

Last, but not least we had a representative from Engineering Supply Company come out to show off a few of TopCon‘s latest GPS/data collection products.

Yes, I drooled.

GMS_2_webI’ve long wanted to upgrade my 10+ year old Trimble Pro XRS unit (a great unit, but it is just too big and heavy for my current needs). And though I’ve drooled over some of Trimble’s latest offerings, their sticker price has often squashed my appetite for a new unit. I figured since TopCon provided pretty much the same great GPS product (almost the same color!), I thought their prices were the same. I wasn’t given a definite price on the spot, but it seems TopCon’s price ranges sounded a lot more palatable than I had previously thought.

I especially liked the GMS-2, a small, handheld, meter-level accuracy GPS unit. It has an integrated photo capture tool and the on-board firmware seemed much more intuitive than TerraSync. Might Christmas come early for Digital Mapping Solutions?


If you have any questions about any of the products featured, please ask or click through the links above to visit each vendor.

Thanks for reading.