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New Technology Aids Wildfire Response

Research and maps from Direct Relief, Harvard, and Columbia give real-time info to government and nonprofits.



A view taken during an evacuation from Oroville, Butte County of the North Complex Fire. (Photo courtesy of Mykalyn Stahr)

As wildfires continue to grow in duration, scale and severity in the United States, a new slate of data-based tools is being honed to help government officials, first responders, and nonprofits make more informed decisions.

At an online panel discussion hosted today by CrisisReady – a research partnership between Direct Relief and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – speakers from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), Harvard University, Columbia University, American Red Cross, Mariposa County’s Health and Human Services Division, and California Conference of Local Health Officers shared new findings on the public health impact of wildfires.

The panel also discussed the latest technologies integrating disparate data sources into more centralized, easier-to-read platforms.

“We’ve got several pieces of research converging all at one time,” said Andrew Schroeder, VP of research and development at Direct Relief and co-director of CrisisReady, during a pre-panel interview.

Schroeder and the panelists highlighted a new health resilience mapping tool funded by Google.org, which is still in development but can provide actionable info. It contains data on social vulnerability, population movement, infrastructure, and the given incident, which it layers onto one interactive map.

The new research also covered the exposure of acute care hospitals to wildfire risk and the medical impact of power outages.

Research and new technologies have played an increasingly central role in state-level emergency responses for years, as decision-makers have seen the benefits of data-driven decisions.

“We have more data, but data systems and tools have not kept up,” Schroeder said.

But that is starting to change. At CalOES, the Data & Geospatial Unit is tasked with serving in a coordination role during disaster events, pulling real-time data on shelters, assets, resources, power outages, and demographic data, including health.

“We’re like traffic control throughout the process,” said Eric Howard, a geospatial data scientist in the unit. “We collect info from other organizations and compile it to assist with the response,” he said.

Howard said his team uses products at various levels of government. In an example of one use case, the data they process appears on the state’s Emergency Operations Center wall.

“They depend on that information to make decisions on a daily basis,” Howard said.

According to Howard, there is often strong demand for power outage information at the county level. He added that centralizing relevant data into one place has allowed county and local decision-makers and responders to best deploy their resources in an optimized, coordinated way.

Counties in California shoulder critical responsibilities concerning public health and disaster response, including care for the displaced populations. Still, according to Schroeder, they are “highly unevenly developed” in terms of use and access to data, integration of that data into decision-making processes, use of climate data, and prediction and mobility modeling.

Though disparities exist in usage, Schroeder said the baseline has increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There was a lot of data brought online to deal with the pandemic,” Schroder said, noting hospital bed availability as an example.

Howard said CalOES is also implanting new products based on newly available data. He mentioned a new map layer with evacuation-related information from 30 counties that launched last year as one example. Such info is critical at the country level, as county officials and sheriffs decide when to evacuate and where to tell people to go.

Another group at CalOES, the Access and Function Needs Group, has been working on a new map highlighting resources available for vulnerable communities and patients. The state is also planning to launch a non-public situational awareness tool called Scout at the end of June, geared toward first responders to help them coordinate their work.

Similarly, data is being used to increase situational awareness in the nonprofit sector.

According to the Red Cross’s Denise Everhart, such info addresses a fundamental problem in emergency response situations.

“The first step in crisis management is understanding the situation, and that’s always our biggest challenge: to figure out what’s going on. Hard data is hard to get your hands on,” she said.

Emergency supplies and medications from Direct Relief on Sept. 14, 2020, en route to a wildfire base camp in Big Sur, California, where firefighters responded to wildfires in the northern part of the state. (Andrew MacCalla/Direct Relief)

“The ability I see in this tool is to see areas of where people are evaluating and where they’re going,” she said, referring to the Google.org-funded GIS map.

“In Paradise, if we had that [elderly] data we probably could’ve been better prepared, and would have realized we needed more durable medical equipment,” she said.

Researchers aim to integrate additional data layers to map products based on new findings related to public health.

“Multiple studies show links with cardiovascular disease. We have also seen an increased risk of adverse birth outcomes among wildfire exposed populations,” said Joan Casey, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, in emailed responses to questions.

“Another key and understudied area is exposure to wildfire disasters and the amount of stress this places on human populations. I expect disaster exposure, where people’s homes burned, community members killed, or large displacement takes place, leads to many additional adverse health outcomes, above and beyond wildfire smoke exposure,” she said.

In concert with the products, Schroeder and his team at CrisisReady are also working to ensure they find their target audience.

“There has to be this concerted approach at this point of getting data into the right hands – people with local decision-making authority and who don’t have access to, or use of, data and who can actually make large gains if we can close that loop,” he said.

“That’s the purpose of this whole thing: where are those places where we’re going to make the most gains?” Schroeder said. “It’s not just mass casualty events, but thinking strategically about how we can make the healthcare system better,” he said.

On the ground, responders concur.

“The better data we get, the better we can make decisions and allocate resources,” said Everhart.

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