Facing the continuous fire season – let’s get mapping in the United States

Both mountain guides and rural firefighters need to know their territory.

For Rob Savoye, combining those two things – plus a love of mapping and expert free software skills – fuels the drive for better maps.

It’s a growing need. There’s no such thing as “fire season” anymore. Dry conditions start in winter, drought stretches from Alaska to the U.S. Virgin Islands, plus historically low rainfall and reservoir levels are factors in more frequent and larger fires in the United States. Depressingly, the same areas keep burning.

Savoye is working to change that with detailed rural maps using OpenStreetMaps. He volunteers for two fire Colorado fire districts that stretch over 200 square miles of mostly national forest and mountainside.

“Needless to say, it was not very well mapped. If you plugged in directions into Google you wound up in Denver,” he says in a talk at the State Of The Map 2022 conference.

But getting there is only the beginning. There are only a handful of paved roads, the rest are often glorified dirt tracks. There are also no fire hydrants, so firefighters need accurate info on where to hoist water out of creeks. That doesn’t entirely solve the problem, though. Even if there’s water, altitude comes into play. “You can only pull water eight feet, so finding those locations where I can bring in a full-size fire truck on a decent dirt road and suck water up is a skill set.”

Now, those decent dirt roads have been mapped — and knowing where to get water is the difference between your house turning into cinders or not.

Savoye, by day senior technical lead at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and a longtime free software developer, says that before OpenStreetMap firefighting or responding to medical emergencies was a terrifying run against the clock.

Most of us are so tethered to our smartphones that we forget about how many places aren’t mapped — in his rural district, Google Maps contained a little over half the addresses.

When calls came in, the volunteers often tried in vain to find the location. That meant jumping into the fire truck while desperately thumbing through three-inch-thick paper mapbooks – often with four houses per page – with no idea what sort of road lead to the fire.

“You’d have to pull over and check your map and you know that every minute you’re looking for where you’re going the house, is burning to the ground. It only takes about 15 minutes,  to be honest it’s kind of depressing.”

Better maps save homes, lives and money. Just by going out and doing some simple data validation maps – adding driveways, addresses, validating road types – lowers the fire risk, the area’s ISO rating and, in turn, homeowner’s insurance.

They also come in handy for responding to medical emergencies in the backwoods, too. Campers far off the trailhead who “hit the dispensary after the airport and climbed to 14,000 feet,” for starters he says. Then people who fish, he adds, are adept at getting as far off the trail as possible to find their great fishing spot. Add to that all the people out enjoying the unofficial mountain biking trails, hiking trails and old logging roads. “The diversity is amazing and we’ve literally mapped all of that.”

Tools he uses include ODK collect, OSMAnd, JOSM as well as homegrown solutions.

Catch the whole talk here.






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