Preventing forest fires like the Tubbs and Nuns wildfires that exploded across Sonoma County in 2017, could have been better supported if firefighters had more detailed land cover information. Types of vegetation, structures, and roads distributed across the landscape would have helped them better evacuate residents and allocate fire suppression resources.
From an article in California Magazine by Glen Martin.
It was only after the fires were extinguished that authorities realized much of that data was available—in the form of “veg maps.” Created by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Ag + Open Space as it’s known locally, the maps deconstruct the terrain, depicting slope, aspect, soil type, hydrological qualities, buildings, roads and driveways—even the density of trees and brush—in exquisite detail.
Such maps, officials realized, could be an immense asset when responding to wildfires. They could even serve a preventative purpose: helping “fireproof” undeveloped land by turning open space from a wildfire liability to a fire-prevention asset.
The maps are produced through LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, which is kind of like radar, except it uses pulsed lasers emitted from aircraft or satellites instead of radio waves. The process yields precise 3-D maps of the earth’s surface, detailing vegetation type and density. Researchers can look at a LiDAR map and evaluate “fuel ladders”—deadwood on the forest floor combined with the limbs and branches running from the ground to the tree tops—in any given stand of trees, down to resolutions of one centimeter.
“Using the maps for wildfire response wasn’t our original intent,” says Karen Gaffney, a UC Berkeley alumna and the conservation planning manager for Ag + Open Space. Originally part of a project supported by the Sonoma County Water Agency and grants from NASA, the maps were created for land and wildlife conservation purposes. “But it just so happens much of that data is proving valuable for disaster planning.”
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