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Technology helps first responders fight California fires

News Analysis
Oct 24, 20175 mins
Internet of Things

Sensors, drones, fire-cams, crowdsourcing and geographical information systems all help minimize damage and deaths.

fire chino hills california
Credit: REUTERS/Mike Blake

Fires have laid to waste huge swaths of Northern California. The deadly blazes have burned through more than nearly 400 square miles forcing 100,000 people to evacuate, and destroying over 8,400 structures.

How do firefighters respond to such a disaster? Where are they dispatched? When and where are evacuations ordered? How can a fire being propelled by 78mph gusts of wind be contained? How do planes know where and when to deploy fire retardant?

Sensors, drones, fire-cams, crowdsourcing and geographical information systems all help minimize damage and deaths.


“The latest count on the Tubbs makes it by far the most destructive fire in our state’s history,” said Daniel Berlant, the assistant deputy director for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. “The biggest problem in most of the fires was the countless embers that were carried a half-mile to a mile in front of the flames. The embers rained down and ignited homes, which fell like dominoes.”

Technology brings a new level of precision and a data-driven approach to managing wildfires. Real time data about fire conditions is collected and blended with predictive data such as current wind speed and direction. It showcases the value of Internet of Things (IoT) in action with (1) data collection (2) real time analysis and (3) optimizing the response.

Collection: gathering fire and environmental data

Aerial Reconnaissance

Fire incident commanders in the past often had rely on information which was out of date while fires continue to burn. Aerial reconnaissance has changed that. It helps fight wildfires using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) such as Insitu’s ScanEagle® that are equipped with High Accuracy Photogrammetry (HAP) sensors. They use military-grade electro-optical (EO) cameras during daylight, and infrared (IR) cameras for night-time imaging. These UAS can penetrate smoke or darkness, gathering and still images which are used to create geo-referenced, high-resolution digital fire progression and suppression maps.

Data is fed into a geographic information system (GIS) customized for firefighters and hosted on Esri’s ArcGIS platform. It provides data collection, analysis, and decision-making information to manned firefighting fleets operating in difficult terrain and smoke conditions. The aerial remote sensor imagery provides near-real time live, web-based video feed of thermal images to FireWhat’s ground-based mobile command centers. Esri’s Drone2Map creates 3D imagery from these still images and integrates them into a dashboard map for optimal situational awareness. Drones are used to map the fire perimeter, and to identify thermal concentrations in the fire where fire retardant should be deployed. This dramatically improves firefighters’ tactical awareness and decision-making.

Helmet cams

Helmet cams worn by firefighters such as the FireCam transmit live video, audio, high quality snapshots, and GPS location back to command centers while still recording video on the camera unit. Esri incorporates these live video feeds and other data feeds into real time maps.

Crowdsourcing is vital to information collection. Residents with the free Waze app in states that also have Esri’s ArcGIS can both enter and receive alerts about fires, road closures and other conditions through the Waze Connected Citizens Program. The app is both a data source and a real-time dashboard. When Wazers enter the data, it can be displayed with the City’s data in ArcGIS online to present a real-time picture to the city and first responders. Community members can also provide on the on-the-ground insight into fire damage in their neighborhoods with Esri’s Survey 123 for ArcGIS.

Analysis:converting fire information into actionable data Field observers, safety officers and division supervisors, depend on accurate information on fire perimeter changes, proposed drop points, targets for aerial support and road closures. These insights enable improved request accuracy and better situational awareness. How is this provided?

Weather conditions such as changing winds, humidity and temperature all influence a fire’s intensity and growth. Weather and environmental monitoring sensors capture this information and relay it to Esri’s ArcGIS GeoEvent Server. Data provided by the USGS, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination Group gives near real-time understanding of the situation on the ground. This information is analyzed with an ArcGIS server along with data from first responders, fire cams, annonymized Waze data, weather sensors and drone generated imagery.The results are shared back in real time with municipalities and firefighters to coordinate responses and alert residents.

Act: responding in real-time

Real-time data feeds is integrated into maps with Esri’s ArcGIS Online and StoryMaps. They provide fire personnel with comprehensive situational awareness through in-vehicle computers, handheld computers, and mobile devices. Updates can also be easily transmitted from the field to the common operating picture in dispatch.

The fires in northern California have devastated thousands of acres, killed dozens of people and displaced thousands of others. Thanks to the brave firefighters helped with technology, the damage and suffering is being minimized. You can help by donating to the recovery services.


Deepak Puri is an IoT expert and the cofounder of DemLabs, a SF-based non-profit hub for technology innovation in support of democracy. Formerly he held executive positions at Oracle, Netscape and VMware.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Deepak Puri and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications Inc. or its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.