POCATELLO — Software developed at Idaho State University has been a key tool for officials assessing the risk of debris flows throughout the burn area of a deadly fire that recently swept through the Malibu, California, area.
Keith Weber, ISU’s geographic information system director, explained his RECOVER software is providing agency officials and emergency responders making decisions regarding the massive Woolsey Fire with a breadth of instantaneous data.
According to national media reports, the fire destroyed 1,600 homes and killed at least three people. It was recently contained, at more than 100,000 acres, but the arrival of precipitation has elevated concerns about mud and debris flows.
RECOVER includes 26 “layers” of data — such as topography, roadways, housing locations, soil types, vegetation and water body locations — that can be mapped on top of one another. The cumulative data set helps officials anticipate what might happen and make better decisions. Having the information readily available in one place, and in a common user-friendly format, can also save days of work that would otherwise be spent collecting data from a host of sources.
For example, Weber said the RECOVER maps can help officials determine which areas are at risk of debris flows, where important transportation corridors could be blocked by debris flows and how debris flows could impact sensitive fish populations downstream.
“We’re striving for what we call actionable information, so subject-matter experts can look at it, it makes sense to them and it becomes part of their knowledge so they can make a well-informed decision,” Weber said.
RECOVER aims to simplify complex data sets. For example, the system classifies fire severity as “low, high or moderate” rather than using a less intuitive numerical system.
RECOVER was developed primarily to facilitate post-fire recovery efforts, such as understanding burn severity and the type of seed to use when replanting vegetation. But Weber said agency officials are increasingly using it to help make decisions regarding active fires, as they’ve done with the Woolsey Fire.
With the Woolsey Fire, Weber said the speed of updating maps has been critically important, and he and his students have updated fire perimeters and other data upon request in under 5 minutes.
RECOVER has been used on 50 fires this season alone. Weber said the point person on the Woolsey Fire was one of 150 officials throughout the country, most of whom work for agencies within the U.S. Department of Interior, who have been trained to use the software.
Throughout winter, Weber and his students update their various data layers with information from official sources such as USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. When fires are active, officials supply Weber with fire data from NASA Landsat imagery.
Federal agencies have 21 days to prepare post-fire reports, and on the largest fires, Weber said they often spend most of the initial week “in a frenzy to get data put together just so they can work on a report.” RECOVER provides the information immediately.
“RECOVER supports cross-organizational collaboration,” Weber said. “Sometimes it’s really difficult for agencies because of their security to share outside of their own agency. With RECOVER, they have a password, they log into the system and everyone can use it.”
He said RECOVER also comes in handy during fire updates with the public, as it can be accessed on most computers, provides visual images that are easy to comprehend and can provide data layers to help officials answer any questions that may come up.
Decisions made based on RECOVER data have also helped agencies conserve their resources. Weber recalled a large Idaho fire that used RECOVER two years ago. The Bureau of Land Management had planned to invest about $500,000 to protect private lands beneath steep slopes from potential debris flows.
“They asked us to do a debris flow likelihood model,” Weber said. “When looking at that, the BLM and their hydrologist said, ‘With these type of soils in this watershed with these slopes, it’s not going to move.’”
Weber submitted a grant proposal to develop RECOVER in 2011 and received the award from NASA Applied Sciences in 2012. He partnered with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on the project. The main funding has expired, but the project received a small amount of additional funding to make user-requested enhancements, thereby making the software available for use in the Woolsey Fire.
Weber said the major users, including the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, are now reviewing proposals to continue funding RECOVER to retain it as a tool for their use.