News publications and other organizations are encouraged to reuse Direct Relief-published content for free under a Creative Commons License (Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International), given the republisher complies with the requirements identified below.

When republishing:

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Republishing Images:

Unless stated otherwise, images shot by Direct Relief may be republished for non-commercial purposes with proper attribution, given the republisher complies with the requirements identified below.

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Direct Relief often contracts with freelance photographers who usually, but not always, allow their work to be published by Direct Relief’s media partners. Contact Direct Relief for permission to use images in which Direct Relief is not credited in the caption by clicking here.

Other Requirements:

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For any additional questions about republishing Direct Relief content, please email the team here.

Seeing Through the Smoke: New Map Tools Inform Wildfire Response



ReadyMapper shows population movement trends and other information crucial during a disaster. (Direct Relief)

Wildfires, like other natural disasters, present a constantly evolving landscape where accurate information can be difficult for officials and emergency response agencies to obtain. Nevertheless, the people tasked with saving lives must make time-sensitive decisions about how to best position resources to address the most critical needs of their communities.

Beyond sourcing data points, such as smoke coverage, the number of hospitals in an area, and where evacuees are going, it is also crucial for decision-makers to understand how these factors relate to one another – for instance, how many hospitals are in the areas where evacuees are going.

“[Officials] depend on that information to make decisions on a daily basis,” Eric Howard, a geospatial data scientist in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services’ Data & Geospatial Unit, told Direct Relief.

Geographic information system (GIS) maps and applications are one way to see multiple data points on a single map. Seeking to help improve emergency response decision-making at all levels of government, Direct Relief’s Research and Analysis team has been working for years to create and refine GIS products that provide the most important, potentially lifesaving information.

Last year, as part of this initiative and as part of the CrisisReady partnership with Harvard University and an interdisciplinary team of academics, Direct Relief released ReadyMapper. This wildfire-specific GIS tool helps agencies understand key information points in the impacted area.

The tool was developed in collaboration with CalOES, the California Department of Public Health, the California Conference of Local Health Officers as well as other state agencies and hospital systems.

This year, in preparation for wildfire season, and with support from Google, the tool has been updated to add and refine the integration of social vulnerability data (which looks at who is most vulnerable based on age, disability, access to a car and other factors), population mobility data (where people are going), health infrastructure, power outages, and event dynamics, such as fire perimeters. These data are mostly sourced from public data sets. The data for population movement comes from Meta, and is anonymized.

“That’s all tightly packaged together so we can work directly with counties and immediately affected areas to give a rapid analysis of how population dynamics are affecting resources allocation,” said Andrew Schroeder, VP of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief and co-director of CrisisReady.

“Everything about a wildfire has a location. So location becomes one of the best ways we can link data together to look at different factors that combine to produce what we understand as the outcome or impact of a wildfire,” Schroeder said.  

“Maps are the best way to see all of the relatively complex impact of a wildfire as a relatively understandable picture,” he said.

The GIS apps have also helped surface concerning information ahead of fires. A recent study authored by Schroeder and his CrisisReady colleagues showed that half of California’s total inpatient hospital capacity is within less than one mile of a high-risk wildfire area.

The ReadyMapper tool incorporates input from officials representing eight California counties. These officials came to Direct Relief’s headquarters in Santa Barbara last August to train with ReadyMapper and share the gaps in knowledge they tend to face during wildfires. Schroeder said a key finding was the variances in sourcing data that exist among counties. Some still do it with phone calls and keeping notes on paper.

“With a fire that goes across two to three counties, they might have different ways of doing this kind of stuff. It’s very personal and relationship based. They just kind of work it out,” Schroeder said.

Aerial photos of the Alisal Fire burning north of Santa Barbara on Oct. 13, 2021. The health impacts of wildfire smoke during and after wildfires are the subject of an increasing amount of research. (Photo courtesy of Los Padres National Forest)

Aiming to streamline the collection and analysis of key data points with the understanding that most county governments do not employ GIS specialists, ReadyMapper provides the same interface and reports to all officials to help them better understand their own areas of operation and to coordinate responses with other counties. ReadyMapper is maintained by the CrisisReady team, but is customizable at a local level.

All the smoke

For future integrations, Schroeder said smoke-related data would be a major focus. Beyond the amount of smoke in a given area, he said the team is working to include smoke direction, duration, and impact.

While wildfires are often quantified in terms of acres burned, Direct Relief has been part of an emerging movement to focus on smoke coverage as well.

Schroeder said there are many challenges involved with displaying air quality data while recognizing the importance of it.

“Air quality depends on variance in air flow, topography, how likely you are to breathe it in… It’s not a uniform problem,” he said, but noted that adding air quality index information would at least give a “proxy measure for days spent under wildfire smoke.”

According to EPA guidance shared by spokesperson Shayla R. Powell,  while most healthy adults and children will not experience long-term damage from smoke exposure, some people may be at greater risk. These include children and older adults with pre-existing heart and lung disease, pregnant women, people who work outside, and people with low income.

In addition to smoke, the ReadyMapper development team is also working with Stanford University’s Matt Chang to look at how populations have moved in the wake of every global disaster since last year.

Comparing similar locations, vulnerability dynamics as well as the type and scale of the event, the research is trying to determine whether there are commonalities that could help inform responses in future natural disasters.

ReadyMapper is also exploring ways to integrate new data sets produced by Google, such as real-time land classification using AI.

“If you had a fire in an area and had a big burn scar, we wouldn’t just see the picture, we could see the reclassification of the land away from what it was before,” Schroeder said.

“This, I think, is actually quite an important input into understanding the impact of an event… It’s looking at long-term consequences of the change that would happen in an area, such as damage to important infrastructure, like hospitals and pharmacies.”

Though ReadyMapper was created for officials and emergency responders, Schroeder said he hopes it will also be used to help address other concerns when natural disasters strike — such as giving advocacy groups for outdoor workers information that they can use to help protect their members.

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