Communities have a new, free tool available to keep their residents safe from wildfires.
The Western Fire Chiefs Association, which is based in Wilsonville, Ore., created its interactive online fire map as part of its mission to aid fire and emergency services personnel with protecting people and property from wildfires. The map at https://wfca.com/fire-map was launched in July 2022 mainly to assist communities in the West, but people can use it nationwide to get details about forest, grassland and other wildland fires.
“This is revolutionary,” said Chief Doug Schrage of the Anchorage Fire Department in Anchorage, Alaska. “There are sources of wildfire data that people can access but they are not easy to find, especially in a stressful situation like when you can see flames or smoke nearby.” Schrage also serves on the WFCA board of directors.
The map operates on as little as one bar of mobile device signal strength, he noted, which allows people to use it even if a wildfire takes down some mobile communications infrastructure.
Wildfires pose a growing threat around the country. The National Interagency Coordination Center’s “Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics Annual Report 2022” listed 68,988 wildfires as reported nationally in 2022 compared to 58,985 reported wildfires in 2021. Wildfires consumed 7,577,183 acres nationally in 2022 compared to 7,125,643 acres in 2021, the report said. The statistics are based on tactical data, the National Interagency Fire Center said.
WFCA leaders started discussions at least 18 months ago about building an interactive fire map, Schrage said. Work on the project began about a year ago.
The WFCA set out to create “the absolute, authoritative wildfire map” to give the public the most up-to-date information available, said WFCA senior technology adviser David Blankinship.
Blankinship further explained people tend to make good decisions about emergency preparedness and safety if they know what’s happening.
“That is a way that we indirectly help the fire chiefs,” he said, “because, if people can make good decisions about self-evacuation or are making wise plans ahead of time, then there are many, many fewer people that we have to evacuate at that time, and it’s not such a shock to the community that that’s happening.”
Supportive partners make it possible for the WFCA to develop and improve the fire map at no cost to users, public safety agencies or communities, Blankinship said.
WFCA fire map features include:
- Free to all users.
- Covers the entire United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.
- Loads quickly and functions even with minimal mobile communications service available.
- Shows a fire’s perimeter and hot spots within it.
- Tracks all firefighting aircraft in real-time so the public can see what areas of the fire are of high concern.
- Allows users to zoom in for a 3D view of a fire scene, including landscape and structures.
- Pulls in almost real-time updates based on information reported in 911 emergency calls. This information results from collaboration with the PulsePoint Foundation, which helps people locate an automated external defibrillator (AED) near the site of a cardiac arrest.
- For fires in California, cooperation with the state’s Fire Integrated Real-time Intelligence System (FIRIS) allows WFCA fire map users to see the projected movement of a fire over the next three to four hours, Blankinship said. Additional Western states are developing similar systems, and their information will be added to the fire map when available.
After opening the fire map on a smartphone or mobile device, people can zoom in on the area around them. Dots or areas colored red mark the newest fire locations. Brown dots or areas pinpoint recent fires, and gray dots or areas show older fire activity. Black icons shaped like airplanes and helicopters and blue dashed lines show the movements of firefighting aircraft.
A pop-up information box reports the type of fire, percentage of containment, fire size in acres and its growth in acres over the past 24 hours. People also can see how many fire personnel are on scene and how recently information has been updated. A 3D button in the upper right corner allows map users to toggle between two-dimensional or three-dimensional views of a fire scene to see topography and structures. Users also can click buttons to share or upload their view of the map to other people.
“It worked really, really well, and especially for a map that arrived mid-season,” Blankinship said. The map received several million user hits on some days during periods of heavy fire activity, he added.
Planned additions to the map include:
- Smoke plume modeling, which Blankinship said will be the most-advanced in the world. The feature will show where smoke likely will drift from a wildfire.
- Real-time, curated information from experts in towns and regions affected by a wildfire. This includes time-and-date-stamped photos, local evacuation orders and details gleaned from public-safety agency radio traffic, Blankinship said.
“Once the plume modeling becomes available, it would be beneficial to people who are susceptible to medical challenges because of breathing smoke,” Schrage said. “The smoke also can impede people’s visibility, which can make it difficult for people to exit the area if they need to. One of the bigger problems from an actual fire evacuation is that people wait too long and they can’t properly see where they are going, and sometimes they end up abandoning their vehicles in a roadway. That impedes the ingress of the firefighting companies.”
Communities and their fire departments can direct people to the fire map from their websites and social media accounts, Blankinship said. They also can send out a link to the map that shows only their immediate area.
“That clean, beautiful map in 3D will come from them just right in that area of interest,” Blankinship said. “It’s local information that’s really about their jurisdictions. So it’s a great source of help for those public information officers.”