The wildland fire open data site features a variety of maps with local and national information.
BY ERIN MCDUFF
Wildfires often develop quickly and expand with little warning. As climate change propels longer, more extreme wildfire season, access to real-time information is more essential than ever.
Launched in April 2020, the National Interagency Fire Center’s wildland fire open data site makes information on wildfire activity across the U.S. publicly available. During its first year, the most popular dataset—providing information on wildfire perimeters—was accessed 3 billion times. And demand for this information continues to grow. During the record-setting 2021 wildfire season, the perimeter dataset was accessed 1.2 billion times in July and August alone.
“Ensuring residents, communities, and travelers can easily access information on nearby wildfire activity is critical to help people remain safe,” said Roshelle Pederson, Wildland Fire Associate Chief Data Officer with the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture.
A diverse range of companies, nonprofits, and public groups are using the data this site provides, including universities, mapping services, insurance providers, and even local hiking groups.
“The private sector is using the data to innovate and deliver services that will help people in numerous ways,” said Tod Dabolt, Interior’s Chief Data Officer.
In 2021, major media outlets, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, created real-time wildfire maps from this data to keep their readers better informed. Esri, the geographic information systems (GIS) mapping company, has created wildfire map layers and live data feeds. And, in the fall of 2021, Google launched a new wildfire layer in Google Maps.
“Because we made this data publicly available, we’re now seeing innovative uses we didn’t expect and could not have created ourselves,” said Dabolt.
How It Started
Real-time wildfire data has historically been difficult for the public to access. Although federal agencies have made data on this topic publicly available since 2001, the information was located across multiple sites, often compiled manually, and either required GIS expertise or was presented as a simplified, non-interactive map.
“As GIS data folks, we knew that we needed to make our data available to the public in a more useful fashion,” said Skip Edel, Fire GIS Program Lead with the National Park Service and Chair of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Geospatial Subcommittee.
That subcommittee, the Data Management Committee, and Pederson sought to create a single, authoritative source for data from the interagency wildland fire community. The OPEN Government Data Act of 2019 provided support for their vision.
How It’s Going
The result is a site that provides high-quality information crafted to be useable by both humans and computers from across different agencies and locations. Data that was historically collected by federal agencies for their internal use is now accessible to individuals, nonprofits, and businesses alike, and it’s serving the public in new and innovative ways.
Across the federal government’s emergency response agencies, it’s hard to find another site that compares in terms of providing real-time, complex data on tens of thousands of incidents across the country. Information is curated by both remote sensors and people on the ground at each wildfire location. The site’s data is updated every 5 to 10 minutes.
After supporting the initial site development and data migration, Emmy Harbo, a contractor and owner of Darkhorse Geospatial, now provides design and data maintenance, creates training videos to help people use the site more easily, and answers questions from the public.
“It’s important to me because I can see what a difference it makes every day in people’s lives,” said Harbo, reflecting on the countless news stories she saw over the summer that pulled data from the site.
“We’re proud of the many organizations and dedicated professionals that worked behind the scenes to make this possible,” said Pederson. Included are the National Interagency Fire Center; National Wildfire Coordinating Group; Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service; USDA’s Forest Service; and state and local firefighting agencies from across the country.
“This project truly demonstrates what is possible when we make data publicly available,” said Pederson. “Its use by Google Maps, the New York Times, and ESRI, to name a few, are great example of how open data can help more people find real-time information on active wildfires through the tools they already use or have on their devices.”
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Wildland Fire.