How Google Maps Helped Turn Tide on Wildfires

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.

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