Center for Forestry at UC Berkeley
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Center for Forestry at UC Berkeley

Center for Forestry News

Where and how to get fire information

Over 22 fires are currently burning in California. These fires have wreaked havoc on homes and communities. In the information age, we expect everything to be instant, yet finding such information on wildfires can be surprisingly difficult. This is often exacerbated by damage to power and communications infrastructure that can leave areas without electricity or cell service.

In 2014, the Center for Forestry nearly lost one of our research forests to the King Fire. During this time, we learned a few things about how fire information is disseminated.  We hope some of this will prove useful to those tracking these fires.

Spatial data

There are two major spatial sources of fire data: fire perimeters and MODIS hot spot data. Fire perimeter data is displayed as a contiguous polygon and is generally collected by a combination of aircraft flyover data and on-the-ground information. It is used by firefighters and other emergency personnel when planning their efforts. These perimeter maps are highly accurate, but are generally only updated every 12 hours; once in the early morning before teams are briefed and once again in the evening.

The ArcGIS US Wildfire Activity Public Information Map showing perimeter data and MODIS data. If the layers do not display, click the button in the top left corner of the embed, choose "layers", and check the boxes for fire information layers.

A second type of fire data is MODIS thermal activity data. MODIS data shows “hot spots” where areas of high temperature are detected by satellite. MODIS data look like dots across a landscape, and generally vary in color depending on how recently they were detected. MODIS data is not as accurate as fire perimeter data (it is collected on a 1km scale), but is collected by satellite and updated much more frequently than fire perimeter data.

Both MODIS and fire perimeter data can be found on the GEOMAC Wildland Fire Support Tool (click the “Data Layers” tab and check the box for MODIS Fire Detection). GEOMAC also includes two other satellite data sources, VIIRS and HMS. More information on these can be found here and here

Additonal maps can be found on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection website and the ArcGIS US Wildfire Activity Public Information Map.

In addition to fire maps, it is possible to find information about smoke as well. AirNow has information on current air quality conditions, including smoke plume maps.

As fires are generally wind driven, it can also be critical to keep track of wind patterns. Windy.com has an easy to read map of wind direction and strength.

Non-Spatial Data

Although spatial data is quick and convenient, due to the limitations in gathering it, it is also important to watch for local data from the state and counties. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection creates a webpage for each fire (usually over a certain size) on their Statewide Fire Information website, along with a map that includes the fire location and perimeter, but no MODIS data. These data are also available on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group's Inciweb site. If a fire does not appear on the Statewide Fire Information website, it may be a federal incident and available on InciWeb. If it does not appear on either site, it may be too recent and not updated yet or too small. These sites will often have other information, including PDF maps, evacuation information, and road closures. 

The best source of up to rapid-fire information about evacuations and road closures will often come more locally from county and/or city resources. For more information on finding this, see the Social Media section below.

Social Media

Often the most rapid source of information these days comes via social media. The quickest and easiest method is generally through Twitter, though it is important to note that unless it comes directly from a government agency's site, the information may not be entirely accurate. Twitter allows for rapid search of information that can be easily sorted by hashtag or location. For example, searching the name of a fire with or without a hashtag and choosing “latest” can provide information instantaneously. Most media outlets, fire agencies, and government agencies have twitter accounts and will post information frequently.

Additionally, agencies will occasionally make Facebook pages for specific fire events. These can be found by searching for them in the top bar of facebook.

We hope this information can be of use, and that everyone stays safe during this terrifying and tragic time. Thank you to those who are fighting these fires and providing these resources so we can know what is going on.

If we have missed anything or you have any comments or questions, contact us at carlinstarrs@berkeley.edu.

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