Making wildfire information quick, easy to access

ODOT GIS Team
Becca Bourson and Kyle Marenger are part of the hard-working, award-winning GIS team pictured here. From left: bottom row – Moriah Joy, Jennifer Lanzarotta, Brett Juul; second row – Philip Smith, Becca Bourson, Kyle Marenger; third row – Chad Nielsen, Chad Brady, Daniel Warren, Michael Hortsch; and back row – Chad Crockett, Shawn Snyder and Casey Ragain.

ODOT’s GIS team helps during traumatic times

GIS Analyst Becca Bourson felt relief as she worked on critical maps containing wildfire perimeter and road closure information in the days following September’s devastating wildfires. She needed the distraction: her parents had evacuated Detroit with their dog and a very noisy cockatiel and were staying with her in Dayton. They were all worried about relatives who own a marina in Detroit. So she busily clacked away on the keyboard, creating a database aimed at helping thousands of Oregonians, including her own family.

“It was a blessing in disguise to have this work in front of me,” Bourson said.

Being prepared, working as a team

The day after the fires started, ODOT Deputy Administrator for Delivery and Operations Mac Lynde called GIS Unit Manager Brett Juul requesting help. The GIS team was prepared for an emergency, Juul said, and it paid off.

“One of the things that really helped us be able to respond was the amount of preparation we had done,” he said. “We had templates ready to go, things like emergency mapping support in place – due to our work with (ODOT’s former emergency response manager) Greg Ek-Collins and Luci Moore (ODOT’s State Maintenance engineer).”

Prep work is great, of course, but this was a real-world test – one that GIS passed with flying colors.

“Becca and Kyle (Marenger) have done an outstanding job,” Juul said.

First, the team worked on highway closure information. The more data they could collect, the more accurate the maps would be. Help came from all over the agency, such as from Region 2 Public Affairs Specialist Ryley Skelton.

“Ryley gave us critical information from workers on the ground, like mile points,” Bourson said. They combined that data with fire perimeters, evacuation notices and more to create a base map from which everything else would follow. The days were long but productive.

The other hard work begins

After the initial work, the data really started pouring in. And that’s what makes all the difference in a story map, which is an online version of a map that’s interactive, that allows a user to turn layers on/off and go deep into what’s happening in a particular area.

The first iteration of the map was called the right-of-entry map, and it had basic information from property owners so that agencies like ours could get in and clean up. Early on, we needed to know which properties had downed trees. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency needed to know which properties had hazardous materials – and so on. Right-of-entry maps helped everyone involved know who was working where, when, why and how.

In the meantime, property owners were busy sending in more details so the database could be expanded: details on septic and other below-ground or above-ground tanks, the property’s drainage system, machinery, snowmobiles, RVs – anything related to the property.

“We used a powerful tool (ArcGIS Survey123) to gather all that information and combine it with right-of-entry data,” explained Marenger, also a GIS analyst. “There were so many interesting pieces – things like the number of burned out vehicles or if there were concrete foundations.”

The result is a rich story map that supports all kinds of efforts from a variety of groups involved in the fires’ aftermath: it guides field crews, populates progress reports and puts critical information into the hands of those most affected – the homeowners.

“It’s like a big master record used by all sorts of stakeholders,” Marenger said.

One of his tasks has been to train the contractors on how to update and use the database. There’s still a steady list of wildfire-related work he’s doing on a daily basis, and that’s okay because, aside from the tragic nature of the wildfires – or maybe because of it – he likes working on the project.

 “I’ve enjoyed the real-world use aspect,” he said, “and hearing from people that they are using the maps to help them.”

Bourson’s family members are safe, it turns out. And it’s highly likely the maps she and Marenger worked on helped them find – however small – some peace of mind.

You can get a glimpse of the work our GIS team did and is still doing at the wildfire website.