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Fall 2007

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Online Only Article With People, Procedures, and Strategies in Place, Agencies Effectively Respond to Firestorm Crisis Using GIS

For San Diego, California, Preparation Plays Paramount Role During Recent Wildfires


  • The GIS action plan streamlined staff and resource allocation.
  • ArcGIS Desktop and ArcIMS provided desktop, mobile, and intranet GIS applications.
  • The city set up infrastructure to exchange files and maps and aid coordination.

In 2003, the human-caused Cedar Fire struck the San Diego, California, area and torched more than 270,000 acres, destroying approximately 2,000 homes and killing 14 people. In the aftermath of this disaster, local area government officials came together to carefully assess how agencies could learn from this event to more effectively respond when the next major catastrophe occurs.

  click to enlarge
Common operating picture produced throughout the firestorm. Information included fire perimeters, actively burning areas, road closures, and shelter locations. These maps were provided to the media throughout the event.

What resulted was meticulous, long-term strategic and tactical planning that put into place the people, processes, and resources that could be deployed at a moment's notice.

The County of San Diego (COSD) GIS community formed a special group of GIS professionals, known as the County of San Diego GIS Emergency Group, to put in place all the necessary ingredients for even more effective GIS deployment before, during, and after all types of large-scale disasters. Data preparation and standards, emergency GIS training, and creation of a standard operating procedure (SOP) were just some of the group's primary focus. In addition to the vital role GIS plays as a technology integration platform, the group uses WebEOC as a communications and data-sharing solution.

Nearly four years later to the day, on October 21, 2007, San Diego faced its next great crisis. A wildfire ignited and quickly spread with tremendous velocity. By day's end, one fire turned to seven, and one of the area's worst natural disasters was well under way.

While the damage was tremendous—200,000 acres of charred land, 515,000 evacuees, and approximately 1,500 destroyed homes—the response was groundbreaking.

Within hours of the first fires, GIS technology was in use. With continuously updated maps and data dispersed to decision makers, geospatial technology served as a core visualization, data management, and analysis solution. The GIS infrastructure contributed heavily to the management of nearly all aspects of the crisis. GIS was also essential in providing both a common operating picture as well as near real-time situational awareness.

"We were careful to look at lessons learned from previous events, where communication issues got in the way of building and sharing GIS data," says Ross Martin, GIS manager for the County of San Diego. "With the 2007 fires, communication was crucial in facilitating geographic situational awareness, GIS analysis, and mapping during the disaster. GIS was crucial here. We were able to foster greater interagency communication and data quality, and we could leverage data captured from the initial response efforts for our recovery efforts."

Wildfires Break Out Across San Diego

On a benign Sunday morning, several fires ignited in San Diego amid dry vegetation that provided perfect fuel. As the fires grew. city, county, and state resources descended upon the region.

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Produced by Health and Human Services to track air quality and the impact of respiratory incidents within the region.

The GIS staff, who played a critical role in providing information and support, put their own SOP plan in place.

GIS staff, with clear, predefined roles, began working to create a number of basic data layers. The GIS action plan eliminated the need for figuring out who and what was needed and where to find staff and resources, as the plan provided immediate data support.

At the command center, GIS staff worked to produce rough fire perimeters as quickly as possible. Taking firefighter and law enforcement calls with fire locations, staff were able to generate basic maps of fire locations and perimeters.

"I was called in about 11:00 on Sunday morning, and at that point, the Harris Fire was burning," says Paul Hardwick, GIS unit leader, San Diego Office of Emergency Services. "Most of the initial perimeter information comes off radio communications from either observers or people on the fire. Basically, they say it's approaching this road, or it's across this address, and I was entering perimeters through heads-up digitizing using roads as boundaries. By that evening, we had three or four analysts working on the mapping effort. This staffing level remained throughout the response effort."

Commanders used this information to make decisions as to where reverse 911 evacuation calls should be placed and how to best send law enforcement into neighborhoods to ensure complete evacuations.

  photo of mapping center
Mapping was front and center in the EOC effort to manage the countywide incident.

Street networks were mapped to determine where road closures would need to be placed. Assessments were also made to determine how certain road closures might impact surrounding open highways and streets.

Red Cross staff and others then looked at evacuated neighborhoods to best place shelter locations. They could also judge the size of evacuation centers to make initial estimates for resources—bedding, food, and water—needed for each center. Critical infrastructure was mapped to indicate locations of assets that were high-priority protection items. Regional population estimates were used to look at the total number of people that were moved out of one area and into another. Critical care populations and hospitals were also mapped to determine which of these facilities might need to be evacuated and how to best carry out evacuations in a timely manner.

A Virtual GIS Network

The county GIS staff created the primary GIS operation at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to support the many agencies in their efforts. With GIS staff working around the clock in 12-hour shifts, ArcGIS 9.2 and ArcIMS provided the GIS platform for desktop, mobile, and intranet GIS applications.

The military proved to be an invaluable partner during the fire response. Navy helicopters with advanced nighttime aviation and tracking equipment allowed fire commanders to perform aerial reconnaissance missions to locate critical infrastructure and ascertain whether assets were in harm's way. County GIS staff created a georeferenced list of items to track. The data was passed off to pilots who could then upload it into their flight computers.

"The Harris Fire had burned farther west and north than originally predicted," explains Martin. "The fire was close to reaching one of the critical infrastructure substations that is a primary conduit through which power gets into the entire county. That substation was under direct threat, and the Navy helicopter called it in. CalFire then quickly called in a strike team to protect the structure. Without that nighttime surveillance and the list of critical assets to monitor, power could have been lost for areas throughout the county."

Twice-daily meetings at the forward incident command centers provided the latest mapped data to be used as part of the informational exchange process.

At EOC, updates could happen as often as every 30 minutes.

"We set up a GIS-significant events board in WebEOC," says Hardwick. "Anybody involved with the incident that has a GIS login can see this board. We used it to exchange shapefiles and maps. The other thing we used it for was coordination of who's making what maps, including GIS staff at the Emergency Operations Center, as well as GIS staff working out of centers maintained by Environment Health and Health and Human Services. For agencies that did not have access to WebEOC, we used e-mail to transfer the data and maps."

GIS staff assists emergency manager in finding critical infrastructure in the path of the fires.

Away from EOC, a GIS analyst worked to perform more complex operations. The analyst worked away from EOC to focus on performing data edits and geoprocessing duties versus staff working at EOC who focused on consuming data, creating maps, and disseminating the information.

Special maps and analysis reflected the requests of specific agency representatives working to address their agency's individual needs. For instance, known hazardous materials locations were overlayed with the evacuation areas to assess potential dangers should a fire reach a specific area. Special needs facilities and prisons in the path of the fire were identified so that decision makers could evaluate the resources required for potentially evacuating these locations.

The GIS group had access to the county's more than 150 existing data layers—everything from streets to land parcels to railways, schools, post offices, ZIP Codes, and more. These data layers are stored using ArcSDE technology and are maintained at a remote location outside the county. Data is also stored on local hard drives in case of network failure. Eight to 10 data layers were generated specifically in response to the fires and were continuously maintained. These included active fire perimeters, burned areas, shelters, road closures, and displaced populations. Staff working in the field accessed ArcGIS tools from their laptops.

Staff also worked closely with the County Public Information Officer to supply GIS-generated maps and data to local media outlets to provide the people with information about what was taking place on the ground and how things were unfolding. Local TV stations, as well as different print media, used digital GIS maps for their daily news reports.

After nearly two weeks of intense response work, recovery efforts were well under way. GIS was used for making detailed damage assessments and for preparing restoration of facilities, repairs to infrastructure, and much more.

According to Martin, the overall GIS success was a direct result of efforts that took root well before the very first fire began. These efforts were largely due to the region's ever-increasing GIS work and the recognition of how GIS is a central component for managing large-scale disasters.

"After 2003, decision makers at many levels recognized that GIS is essential for responding to fires, and they've since devoted enough resources to make it more available," says Martin. "That's what has changed: the greater understanding of what GIS is and how important it is for making good decisions for emergency response. I think this is happening across the nation and around the globe, really. The world in many capacities is starting to go through the same evolution. We spend a lot of time going to visit other jurisdictions and groups and seeing how they do things. They're going through the same kind of evolutionary process we went through."

More Information

For more information, contact Paul Hardwick, GIS Unit leader, San Diego Office of Emergency Services (e-mail:, or Ross Martin, GIS manager for the County of San Diego (e-mail:

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