Northern California firefighters use real-time mapping to track devastation

To alert the community and inform recovery operations, firefighters are using a new GIS app to report destroyed or damaged buildings.

It is hard to quantify the devastation and loss from the fires that ravaged Northern California this month, but for those affected, state firefighters have released a new digital map to deliver updates on damaged and destroyed properties.

In a partnership with the mapping company Esri, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) developed an interactive map to communicate the status of the homes and buildings across Napa and Sonoma counties.

Initial damage assessments place the number of structures destroyed at more than 8,400, according to the Associated Press, while the death toll sits at 42 people. During the start of the blaze, first reported Oct. 8, mandatory evacuations drove hundreds from their homes and now many are unsure what awaits them when they return.

CAL FIRE was not available for comment Monday, but Esri Disaster Response Technology Specialist Chris Fern said the app was created at the request of CAL FIRE to expedite data gathering and recovery coordination.


“As the data was collected and gathered, there was a need to push that out as soon as possible,” Fern said. “Traditionally that’s done through a list from the county or Sheriff’s Office, but considering the scale of the fire, that job was much more difficult and the desire was to enable people to search for their own addresses.”

From a user’s perspective, the map first appears as a scatter of red and yellow dots confirming destroyed or damaged homes. The red and yellow clusters pop up out of the region’s green topography and are framed within the marked perimeters of the wildfires.

For those who find their properties were damaged or lost in the fires, the map also provides links to resources from CAL FIRE and emergency operations centers in the various cities and counties. Some of this information includes details on debris removal, how to collect FEMA benefits, road closures and safety guides for returning to damaged homes.

As the flames die down and the fires are contained, CAL FIRE is using the map to enhance recovery efforts and reporting. Firefighters in the field can post updates in real time, while residents and the public can check on the status of properties just by entering an address. Data generated by the app is relayed to the local counties and cities to inform their recovery and response strategies.

Fern said Esri’s goal in the future is to offer the tool to other localities dealing with wildfires.  


“The big question that people have is how many structures were affected, and how will that impact the county and state,” Fern said.

Since the disaster began, CAL FIRE reported it has as responded to 250 wildfires and more than 245,000 acres have burned so far. The effort has required more than 11,000 firefighters to assist and temporarily or permanently displaced 100,000 residents. While working with fire crews on the ground, Fern said the size of the destruction was unlike anything she had seen before even with past experiences dealing with wildfires and the technology was needed to alleviate crews that were already understaffed.

“This is much, much greater than any incident I’ve ever been at before,” Fern said. “You could see for blocks and see entire subdivisions where there is nothing left. It’s pretty shocking.”

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