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California wildfires: GIS technology helps rebuild lives

California wildfires: GIS technology helps rebuild lives

M.E. (Moe) Adams, resident engineer at the Mendocino County Field Recovery Office, looks over the destruction in the Fisher Lake area of Mendocino County, Calif., which suffered devastating damages caused by the October 2017 Northern California Wildfires. Photo: Carol Vernon, Public Affairs, Pittsburgh District, USACE.

By JoAnne Castagna, Ed.D.

Last fall in northern California, blazing wildfires turned lush wine valleys and home developments into debris and ash. Soon after, make-shift tents started rising on the charred landscape.

“Residents didn’t want to leave their property,” said Marzena Ellis, an hydraulic engineer with the New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The residents were holding onto the lives they had before the wildfires and Ellis was there to help them rebuild those lives. Ellis is one of almost 900 Army Corps volunteers who deployed to California from various Army Corps Districts and Divisions to help with the recovery efforts. Ellis’s role was to create maps using GIS to help with the massive debris-removal process.

In October 2017, numerous, fast-moving wildfires erupted and burned throughout Northern California, including Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma, Solano, Yuba, and Butte Counties. More than 245,000 acres of land were burned, there were 43 casualties, and more than 10,000 structures were destroyed or damaged.

This created the largest debris cleanup in California’s history since the 1906 San Francisco 7.9 earthquake that struck the coast of Northern California. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) called on the Army Corps to execute the massive debris-removal mission.

Col. Eric M. McFadden, commander Sonoma Recovery Field Office, surveys the fire-related debris removal work being completed in the Santa Rosa area of Sonoma County, Calif. Photo: Carol Vernon, Public Affairs, Pittsburgh District, USACE.

The Army Corps worked under the direction of FEMA and in partnership with California’s Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, as well as other federal, state, and local agencies. The debris clean up mission was performed in two phases:

  • Phase 1 — The California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Toxic Substance Control moved in to remove household hazardous waste.
  • Phase 2 — The Army Corps and California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), cleared property of ash and fire-related debris.

As of June 2018, 2.2 million tons of debris had been removed from more than 4,500 properties. This is equal to the weight of more than two Golden Gate Bridges, which combined equals 1,774,000 tons.

To assist with the debris-removal process, Ellis created maps and performed critical analysis using GIS. She performed this work in collaboration with Arcadis U.S., Inc., a global design, engineering, and management consulting company. This information was used by decision makers in every stage of the mission to perform environmental assessments, debris hauling, and the final cleanup.

This is not the first time the Army Corps’ GIS expertise has been tapped for major missions. Other missions include the 2007 California wildfires; in Manhattan, New York City in 2001 following 9/11; and currently to help bring back power to Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Using GIS, Ellis created a wide variety of maps that aided in the cleanup of hundreds of private properties, whose owners signed up for the Consolidated Debris Removal Program. The maps were used for debris-hauling routes, safety awareness, and mission status.

Debris-hauling route maps were created that provided the Army Corps and CalRecycle with the most efficient and safest routes around difficult terrain to navigate dumpster trucks and excavators. Wildfire debris — such as downed trees — created narrow, unsafe roads and steep terrain.

Safety awareness maps were created that highlighted properties that had special circumstances noted during the debris-removal process. These maps were used by the field and supervisory staff for decision making and safety awareness.

Sample of Safety Awareness Map. Credit: USACE

Mission status maps were created that showed decision makers the affected properties and various stages of debris removal. To create these maps and perform analysis, Arcadis crews collected data from the field throughout the life cycle of the mission.

Sample of Status Map. Credit: USACE

This data included property site assessment data that included counting the number of buildings on the site, noting any hazardous materials and situations on the site, taking air monitoring measurements, and determining the best routes to transport debris.

During the debris-hauling process, the total quantity of debris and asbestos was determined.

In addition, Arcadis collected soil samples for testing to ensure the soil was safe for rebuilding. If the site was safe, then erosion control was installed on the property before releasing the land back to the owners.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and in partnership with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, removed more than 1 million tons of fire-related debris left behind by the October 2017 Northern California wildfires that blazed through Sonoma County. Photo: Carol Vernon, Public Affairs, Pittsburgh District, USACE.

Ryan Miller, a GIS analyst with Arcadis, said, “By combining our various GIS skillsets and working in collaboration, we were able to quickly formulate action plans and deliver the GIS results requested by crews in the field, including Arcadis field crews and CalRecycle.”

Todd Thalhamer, operations chief, CalRecycle, said, “The GIS system used by the Army Corps was critical in planning the incident and determining resource allocation. Our team worked with the Army Corps to identify where the burned structures were located in each county, the proximity to environmental receptors, location of schools, and to develop an overall plan for the deployment of resources. In a disaster of this size — over three counties — it was critical to have the most current intel on where the impacted structures where located.”

Miller added that because of the large number of entities working on this mission, sharing information and having the latest data was important. “It was a common sight throughout the weeks to see supervisors from CalRecycle, FEMA, Arcadis, and private debris hauling contractors all reviewing the maps we created during their discussions of planning and decision making,” he said. “By providing these benefits to the project, we helped to move it forward and meet the rapid response timeline, so that the residents and communities affected by the wildfire could begin rebuilding.”

JoAnne Castagna, Ed.D., is a public affairs specialist and writer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. She can be contacted at joanne.castagna@usace.army.mil.