Program cuts response time to forest fires

Courtesy of
Media Relations

   When firefighting crews are dispatched to battle a forest fire, every second counts. In the 10-minute span it normally takes for dispatch personnel to determine a fire’s location, a forest fire can consume acres of timber.

   That response time wasn’t good enough for a University of Arkansas at Monticello forestry professor. Dr. Bob Weih, who heads the spatial analysis laboratory in the UAM School of Forest Resources, has developed a software program that instantly pinpoints the exact location of forest fires and dramatically cuts response time.

   Using a software program called ArcView, Weih and forestry graduate student James Hartshorn of Hamburg wrote thousands of lines of programming code to create a program that allows fire dispatchers to locate fires by latitude and longitude, by township, range and section, or by user point. The program contains 15 data layers, including:
Courtesy of Media Relations
Quick Response -- Dr. Bob Weih (seated) and UAM graduate student James Hartshorn (standing) work on the program to cut response time to forest fires. The program pinpoints the exact location of a forest fire.

  • county boundaries
  • section lines
  • quarter-section lines
  • quadrangle boundaries
  • county highway maps
  • airport locations
  • city boundaries
  • highly detailed topographic maps
  • railroads
  • color infrared aerial photography accurate to one meter
  • airport service areas
  • land cover type
  • state boundary
  • ownership area
  • fire database

   “The majority of forest fires in Arkansas are either spotted from an aircraft or called in by local citizens,” Weih said. “When an aircraft locates a fire, the pilot radios the latitude and longitude of the fire to dispatch personnel. In the past, the dispatch personnel would take that information and go to a USGS quad map, use a T-square to determine the township, range and section of the fire, then relay that information to fire fighters. The process could take up to 10 minutes. That may not seem like a long time, but when there are over 3,000 fires spanning a three-month period like we had in June, July and August 2000, the phone lines can get backed up.”

   When local citizens report a fire, they are often unable to provide enough information for dispatchers.

   “The average citizen can’t tell the dispatcher the latitude and longitude or section, township, and range of the fire,” Weih said. “To accurately determine the location, a citizen has to describe the location using road names and addresses. In the past, dispatchers only had the USGS quad maps to determine these fires’ locations. There are 915 quad maps in the state. Not only are these quad maps limited in the data they contain, they can also be over 50 years old. This was just way too time-consuming and inefficient.”

   Weih included a number of features in his program to direct fire fighters to a fire’s exact location. A “Return Distance and Azimuth” tool allows a dispatcher to select an airport and draw a line to a fire. A message box appears with the azimuth angle to the fire and the distance in miles between the fire and the airport.

   “This information allows a fire pilot to reach a fire much quicker,” Weih said.

   The dispatcher can also provide fire fighters with specific information about a fire by using a feature called “Create Smoke Plume.” By pushing a button, the dispatcher can create a smoke plume on screen that shows the length, direction and angle of the plume.

   “This allows the dispatcher to see if there are any potential hazards, such as the smoke crossing a highway or interstate,” Weih said. “In that case, the dispatcher would notify the highway department or local and state law enforcement. The dispatcher can also notify the appropriate personnel in case of any health risks, such as the smoke passing over a nursing home or hospital.”  

   John Shannon, the State Forester for Arkansas, called Weih’s program “the greatest thing to happen for forest protection in Arkansas in a long time.

   Our dispatchers love it,” Shannon said. “With a few mouse clicks, the dispatchers can accurately locate a wildfire on a topographic map or an aerial photograph. The program identifies the nearby highways and airports, and can predict and map the wildfire’s smoke plume. And the dispatchers can e-mail the maps directly to the fire fighters. This is a tremendous upgrade from quad maps and T-squares.”

   Weih’s program has been in use in Arkansas for two years and is garnering nationwide attention. Weih and Hartshorn were recently honored for their work by the 2004 Environmental Systems Research Institute’s International User Conference.

   “This program has evolved into a state-of-the-art computer-aided system,” said Bruce Lantz, communications systems manager for the Arkansas Forestry Commission. “This system is responsible for diminished firefighter response times, which has directly saved property and resources in Arkansas.”

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