Google Maps, Predator Drones Turned Tide on Wildfires

By Ericka Chickowski Print this article Print

San Diego State University used near real-time imaging to help firefighters combat and contain massive Californian blazes.

Cooler temperatures and sullen Santa Ana winds are aiding firefighter's efforts to contain devastating wildfires that have forced tens of thousands to evacuate and destroyed hundreds of Southern Californian homes. Prior to a change in the weather, though, it was high-tech military technology and Web-based applications that made the difference in containing the massive conflagrations.

One of the biggest challenges that emergency workers, first responders and residents faced was figuring out exactly where the fire lines blazed. In the past, such catastrophes were assessed with boots on the ground and snapshot assessments gathered by fire spotters and helicopters on the scene.

Through the cooperation of local volunteers, geographers and government agencies, technologists created highly accurate maps and satellite overlays pinpointing the exact location of fires in near real-time for the benefit of not only the first responders and evacuees concerned about their homes.

Unquestionably the hardest hit by the out-of-control brushfires, San Diego County alone saw more than 325,000 acres of active burn at the peak of the disaster last week. As the hot and gusting Santa Ana winds blew ash and embers in thick clouds and changed the flames' positions minute by minute, regional firefighters would have had an extremely difficult time plotting the fire locations the old-fashioned way. Fortunately for them, they had an ally in the Center for Information Technology and Infrastructure (CITI), run out of the San Diego State University (SDSU) Visualization Center.

Funded in part by grants that were awarded by regional government bodies in the wake of San Diego's last major fires in 2003, CITI is responsible for helping the San Diego Unified Disaster Council develop communication and geographic information systems (GIS) technology that can aid agencies during disasters such as these wildfires.

The Visualization Center, known simply as the "Viz Center," is a computing lab that does GIS research that has direct application in disaster relief and homeland security operations. For example, the Viz Center provided imagery and visualization data to aid Hurricane Katrina and Indonesian earthquake relief and rebuilding efforts. In addition, it works with law enforcement and first responder groups to use affordable or free mapping tools such as Google Earth during emergency situations exactly like the one that struck in its own backyard last week.

Given the investment in CITI infrastructure and industry partnerships, co-directors Dr. Eric Frost and Bob Welty were in a good position to provide immediate assistance to combat the fires.

"When the fires first started, one of the huge concerns was that nobody knew where it was because the smoke was so heavy and the wind was so strong that aircraft couldn't fly," Frost said. "It was a real puzzle because the fires were in so many places at the same time."

Frost and Welty's team at the Viz Center leveraged their relationships and every available technology possible. The first step was to reach out to their contacts at NASA, which gathered data of the affected areas through satellite imagery provided by the MODIS group the Goddard Space Flight Center. MODIS satellites collect images twice a day from Southern California and, according to Frost, it typically takes NASA about 24 hours to process the data so that the Viz Center can use it to create map overlays with Google Earth or a special GIS tool called GeoMatrix Toolkit created by GeoFusion Inc.

The Viz Lab team got NASA to roll up its sleeves for the emergency and output the data in an unheard of three-hour window. "We connected with them and really pleaded with them and they were very empathetic and said 'OK, we'll pull out all of the stops," Frost said.

As the fires progressed and the winds died down, the Viz Center team called on NASA's Predator B-a larger, civilian version of the military's unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicle-for flights over burn areas to acquire even more accurate and up-to-date visual data.

The Viz Center offered these overlays to emergency workers at the San Diego County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) so that they could get accurate assessments of where the fire was and where it was headed based on smoke patterns and vegetation surrounding the smoke.

"We sent it to specific people at the EOC who are responsible for GIS during emergencies. We're trying to quietly be there in support while they do their job rather than trying to wave our flag an say 'Look at what we're doing,'" Frost said, explaining that as a result they are still waiting to hear feedback on what was useful to emergency staff during the height of the disaster.

Viz Center resources were also used to create informative maps from environmental sensors set by the U.S. Forest Service, lists of destroyed buildings, areas evacuated by emergency workers. Combined with the satellite mash-ups, all of this information was made available online to the public. The center also invited the San Diego PBS affiliate, KPBS, to work out of the lab in order to more quickly disseminate the map information.

"I think this is going to change the way crises are handled. Before (we got here) we were manually updating our own Google map. When I walked into this room down here and I saw the things that people were doing, it was kind of astounding," said Leng Caloh, managing online editor at KPBS, the San Diego PBS affiliate. "I thought, 'So it is actually possible to take the county data and overlay it over a Google map? OK, so how come this isn't automatically done in an emergency?'"

Part of the reason is because the technology and processes to do the work is so new that technology logistics and integration issues are still being worked out. Some have easier solutions than others.

For example, some of the non-Google maps and models made available online by the Viz Center were originally hosted on a Windows server owned by the SDSU Geography department, which works closely with the Viz Center. The traffic load quickly crashed the machine. Frost called on Larry Smarr at University of San Diego California's California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) to host all of the maps and visualization data on its enterprise-class systems. Calit2 hosted the data on two new Intel Itanium 2-powered servers that were directly connected to SDSU.

Even after those improvements, the Google maps created by the Viz Center and by KPBS quickly became so inundated with traffic that it even overwhelmed the Google Maps servers. After a plea from Caloh and Frost, Google not only made system upgrades to handle the load but also sent two employees down to the Viz Center to help manage the system.

To automate the dissemination of up-to-date fire information, Frost and Welty say it is also a matter finishing upgrades to San Diego County's infrastructure. In addition to the GIS work done by their team, they are also collaborating with county officials to create a broadband wireless network to improve interagency communications and that will allow them to quickly provide updated maps to firefighters on the scene and to collect fresh video and data feeds for updates. The region has already invested $10 million in infrastructure to begin the process of building out this communication superstructure, including antennas placed on dozens of San Diego mountaintops.

Unfortunately, disaster waits for no technologist. Though the existing infrastructure did help agencies better communicate during these fires, there is still work to be done before the visualization data can be transmitted between field workers and the Viz Center for real-time processing.

"It is still in a pilot mode. We're building out infrastructure and every year we get additional grants," Welty said. "We're doing it in increments and that is the way it is working out."

Welty is hopeful that this work will be complete by next spring. By the time fire season comes next year, San Diego will be better prepared than ever, he says.

This article was originally published on 2007-10-29
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