Daytona Beach News Journal

Satellite, software help combat wildfire threat

Last updated: Mar 26, 11:10 AM

BUNNELL -- Firefighters know a key to their success is getting people and equipment to trouble spots in a hurry.
They're more likely to be comfortable at the controls of their hardware than a computer's software. But a new computer program being prepared for use by the state Division of Forestry will make a computer mouse a mighty tool.

The new Fire Risk Assessment System takes high-resolution satellite imagery of the entire state, plugs in everything Forestry knows about the types of vegetation, wildfire fuels, weather and population and marries it on one screen.

After 20 years on the job, Mike Kuypers, a forestry district supervisor, knows a lot about wildfire. He knows the trouble spots, the vegetation, local weather patterns and what a wildfire is likely to do.

Forestry doesn't want to replace that knowledge, but a new computer software package could put it at the fingertips of any dispatcher, land planner, firefighter or government employee concerned about wildfires.

Kuypers, whose district includes Volusia and Flagler counties, was here for the 1985 wildfires that destroyed 130 homes in Flagler County and again in 1998 when about 370 homes were destroyed or damaged statewide by wildfires.

Hoping to avoid the situation in the future, one of the recommendations from a committee appointed to study the fires by then Gov. Lawton Chiles focused on developing a means to give managers a strategic view of the state's wildfire risk to help prevent loss of life and property.

The Division of Forestry contracted with Space Imaging Solutions of Salt Lake City, Utah. Teams of foresters were sent out to 3,000 plots throughout the state to assess vegetation, the amount of wildfire fuel, topography and other factors.

"What we feel we have is a fuels map that is 90 percent accurate," Kuypers said.

The computer map breaks the state into quarter-acre pixels that are shaded various colors to match the type of vegetation and conditions that exist in that quarter-acre area. Included in that information is weather history for 18 regions based on the Forestry district maps, soil types, roads, buildings and other information.

When a wildfire is reported, dispatchers log the location in the system and it reports the type of terrain and vegetation near the fire, where it might go and what kind of a threat it poses.

It also is handy for planning, Kuypers said.

"You can play 'what-if' games with it," Kuypers said. "You can go in and ask: If I control burn this area, what will the risk of wildfire be in a year? In two years?"

Foresters conduct what are called "controlled burns." Started and controlled by Forestry personnel under ideal conditions, the goal is to burn off underbrush and dead vegetation buildup and increase wildfire danger.

The program will help identify high-risk areas that need to be burned.

"There is always 10 times more burning that needs to be done than gets done in a year," Kuypers said.

An example of the odds facing Forestry trying to keep wildfire danger at a safe level can be summed up in manpower and machines versus the land. There are 20 rangers and 10 tractors to conduct yearly controlled burns and fight wildfires on 530,000 acres of wildlands in Volusia County and 270,000 in Flagler County.

"In a situation like 1998, we bring in others to help out," Kuypers said. "Just like a city fire department, we can't staff for the worst-case scenario."

The computer system is available to Forestry District offices throughout the state now. However, its supervisors, Kuypers included, are just learning how to use the system.

"We are looking at an interim training period and we will launch the system in about 60 days," Jim Karels, with the Division of Forestry in Tallahassee, said.

Soon after that, Forestry dispatchers will have the new computer system. Forestry offices throughout the state are upgrading their computer systems to handle the new program.

Karels said the system was funded by a Federal Emergency Management Agency Grant of about $600,000. The grant paid for the computer system and the work Forestry put into the system gathering information.

The new computer program has pointed some problems for Volusia and Flagler counties.

"It shows the areas burned in 1998 are coming back," Kuypers said. "Some are in the high-hazard range again."

Would it have made a difference in 1998?

"It wouldn't have stopped the fires," Kuypers said, "but if we had it previous to 1998, it might have helped as a planning tool."