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.

You Can Trust Nature

Earlier this month, I attended the A Week of Fire in Central Oregon fire science symposium in Bend, Oregon. It was a well-attended conference where I got to participate in the RX-310 course (The Ecological and Social Effects of Fire), sat in on some amazing fire science lectures, and learned that most folks trust nature – but not fire officials. Whoa. Back up. Did I just write that folks, people like you and I, trust our landscape’s inherent natural processes more than they trust the people in whom they place responsibility to protect their home from those natural processes? Well, if I didn’t, that’s what I meant to write. One of the aspects of this symposium that I found interesting was the inclusion of the social aspects of fire ecology. How is that we (residents, scientists, land managers) influence fire on the landscape and how does fire on the landscape influence us?

Jeff Kline, a U.S. Forest Service researcher, and Christine Olsen, Ph.D., a Research Associate and Instructor at the Oregon State University, presented the results of a survey they conducted among homeowners in central Oregon. They asked homeowners 25 questions about their fuel reduction activities on their property. And they also asked about what influenced their decision to conduct those activities and where they got their information. Their answers were both predictable and revealed a surprising, subtle relationship between these landowners and the fire-prone landscapes they live in. Results from Christine Olsen‘s survey showed that a little more than half of the landowners surveyed reduced fuels on their lands. This was a lot more than I had thought. Even though it would be nice if 100% reported they were actively managing their property, 56% is better than zero. What was also encouraging is that the surveyed showed Firewise programs did influence homeowners’ activities. Regardless of the motivation (“likes the way it looks”), the fact that Firewise programs had a positive influence on homeowners shows that federal and state efforts to engage the public are working! But what I found most interesting about the survey is that when asked about trust, the responses were not what I would have expected. I’ll present that question and the results in their entirety:

EDIT: my apologies to Ms. Olsen. Her paper is in the publication process and she has asked that I remove the screen shots of her paper. So, you get my terrible summary. My apologies.

In one of the questions, the respondents were asked about where they get their fire safety information from, whether they trusted the person or agency from which the information originated and whether they thought the information was important in their decision making process (as far as fire mitigation efforts were concerned).

Most folks got their information from the local fire department, a family member, or the U.S. Forest Service. Among those three, 62.6% fully trusted their family members, 80.7% fully trusted their local fire department and only 59.2% fully trusted the U.S. Forest Service.

What’s interesting to compare is the local fire department and the U.S. Forest Service. I pick these two for the obvious reason: the local fire department scored the highest in trust and importance, however, we all know, they have little influence over the management of the wildlands that surround these homeowners. The agency that does manage those lands are more than likely to be the U.S. Forest Service (simply because they own the most land in these rural settings). Notice that that agency score significantly lower on the trust and importance question. One might deduce that homeowners do not particular trust the one agency that has some of the most influence on whether a wildland fire occurs near their home and very well may be the agency that is ultimately responsible for protecting their home in the event of a wildland fire.

On the other hand, the respondents placed their complete trust in the fact that a wildfire, a natural process, in the vicinity of their home was only a question of time. Most (71%) believed that the chance of a wildfire occurring close to their home in the next five years was 50% or greater – even though only 2.3% had ever been evacuated from their home due to a wildfire. In other words, they know its coming – just not when. And the one agency that is responsible for managing those huge tracts of land where a wildfire is inevitable? The study showed that the U.S. Forest Service needs to improve the communication of their land management policies (wildland fire management versus “let burn” policy), because folks just didn’t trust the agency to use fire* near their homes.

EDIT: Image removed per request from study author.

If you’d like to find out more, please contact Jeff Kline with the U.S. Forest Service or Christine Olsen with Oregon State University. *Fire use to manage large tracts of land is becoming more popular with public land agencies. Fire ecology studies show the many ecological and fire risk benefits result from the use of managed, recurring fire.

CalGIS 2014

Is over!

Did you attend? I did and I’m very glad that I did so. I sat in on the Open Source session on Monday where we were awed by the free (yes, free!) GIS software packages out there, specifically QGIS and MapBox. I’ll be delving more into both in the next month and will post about my experiences with each (both good and bad).

The second day of the conference featured two talks: one by Mike Migurski from Code of America and representative from Google (didn’t catch him name, there was a switch up in the presenters, but I’ll have his name by the time I post again!). Both talks were inspirational, but also a little scary. The industry is moving so far beyond my current skillset, I wasn’t sure where I fit in.

That afternoon we had a “town hall” discussion about geospatial education and whether our current educational programs was meeting the industries needs. Sad to say, but it became clear that geospatial programmers are hot on the list. We were then bombarded with several lightning talks (5 minutes each) from a variety of participates, each showing off their special projects – from Geocortex Web-based GIS to UC Merced’s new service center called SpARC.

The third day started out with a bike ride – which I was unable to participate in – darn allergies! But the day soon got started with several break out sessions. I attended the When People Move In, Data Data Data, and New Tricks and Tools sessions. I’ll discuss more from each in subsequent blog posts.

And lastly, the conference’s final two keynote speakers, Eric Gundersen from MapBox and Jack Dangermond from ESRI, gave some rousing rhetoric about where they each see the future of GIS. Again, very interesting and just a tad bit scary. I’ll explore some of the issues they discussed in subsequent blog posts. Suffice to know that each made me think long and hard about my chosen profession and have made me more committed to the geospatial sciences than ever before.

Until next time, map it!

CityEngine by ESRI

While watching an ESRI CityEngine webinar, the presenters included Overwatch, whom featured their ESRI extension called Feature Analyst.

Feature Analyst automates the collection of vector data from rasters or images. I know, that sounds simple, but it really is an amazing thing.

Check out the entire webinar here and learn about some of the amazing things capable with CityEngine.


Central Oregon Fire Science Symposium 2014


Will you be attending the Central Oregon Fire Science Symposium next month?

I will!

Here are the specifics:

3rd Central Oregon Fire Science Symposium – Please Join Us for an amazing “Week of Fire”

The week kicks-off Monday morning with the Ecological and Social Effects of Fire, a four day introductory course aimed at fuels and resource specialists and students interested in fire ecology offered in conjunction with the Central Oregon Fire Science Symposium and the Oregon Prescribed Fire Council meeting.

On Tuesday and Wednesday scientists will share their research at the 3rd Central Oregon Fire Science Symposium. Of particular note will be presentations on the recently completed Forests, People, Fire project; the effects of the Pole Creek Fire; fire history in lodgepole pine; fire in moist mixed conifer forests; wildfire and insect interfaces; and the effects of fire in Great Basin ecosystems.

Thursday is the inaugural meeting of the Oregon Prescribed Fire Council which will bring together a diverse group of people from around the state to discuss common issues of prescribed fire and the formation of a formal organization.

Join me in Bend, Oregon April 7th to the 10th, 2014 as we learn more about fire in our western landscapes.


Safety Matters

Photo taken by a GMIHC member on two-track road early on June 30, 2013 during test-fire operations.
Photo taken by a GMIHC member on two-track road early on June 30, 2013 during test-fire operations.

At the end of last year, I had the privilege of working with Wildland Fire Associates on a report. It was just one small report. All I did was spruce up their graphics and provided a map. I also helped out a bit with the editing.

Regardless of how little I contributed, the report content made me feel as if I was participating on something significant. I approached the project with humility and respect.

Based on that report’s findings, on December 4th, 2013, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) issued several citations to the Arizona State Forestry Division (ASFD) for events that led to the deaths of 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013.

On the Yarnell Hill Fire, a series of very unfortunate incidents and rapid-fire decisions put lives in danger – as they do in every wildland fire incident. However, how we approach each new challenge determines if that danger will be safely mitigated.

In an attempt to keep the national conversation on safety issues and in response to the Yarnell Hill Fire catastrophe, Wildland Fire Associates has created a Facebook page to focus on meaningful changes in firefighter safety.

Whether you agree with ADOSH’s decision to cite ASFD, and whether or not those citations will elicit changes in the fire fighting community, talking about what safety issues we need to address will guide us all towards a safer future. If you are a wildland firefighter, please join us at Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change.