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At the time of year when most of us here in Northern California (I’m located in Sacramento) are looking for temperatures to “dip” into the 70’s, we are dealing with an unprecedented heatwave leaving us with very summer-like temperatures in the mid-90’s.

Having unseasonably hot weather is one thing, but add that to our record drought and abundance of forestland and you—literally—have a recipe for disaster.

Nowhere is that more obvious than the King Fire just east of Sacramento that is just now coming under full containment after burning up over 90,000 acres of land and, at one point, using as many as 5,300 firefighters. Hundreds of homes and structures have also been destroyed by the fire that was purposely set by a local resident.

Map of King Fire
Map of King Fire

One of the ways that firefighters and Cal Fire officials try to stay on top of what is happening during a fire of this magnitude is the use of GPS to track the direction of the fire, where fire jumpers should land to combat the flames, and even in the huge tanker planes that drop water and fire retardant.

For the folks on the front lines, the Trimble Juno is the device of choice. GIS Coordinators load the Juno with maps and various layers of information that these vital crews can then use to make strategic decisions such as where to back burn, where to place additional crews, and what the terrain in front of and behind the fires look like.

Believe it or not, even the folks in the air benefit from high-accuracy GPS units. In many of the huge planes that dump water and chemicals, a Trimble Geo 7X or Geo 6000 is placed in the cockpit to help the pilot plot the best path to dump their payload with some of the same imagery used by the ground crews. This information helps assure proper drops and keeps people safe on the ground.

Perhaps the unsung hero in all this important work is the GIS Coordinator for each fire district. During a wildfire they are responsible for loading up each GPS device with the proper images and feature classes. This is no easy task when you consider that at any fire—especially the large ones—dozen of these handhelds are in use.

In my conversations with these coordinators, one of their primary challenges is being able to transfer data to-and-from the handhelds to their GIS systems so they can make sense of all the data that is coming in from so many sources. Keep in mind that cellular and Wi-Fi networks are few-and-far-between in most of those locations so the coordinator either have to drive back and forth each day (or usually in the evenings) to their offices or—if they’re lucky—they look for the highest, safest site they can find and hope to catch a cellular signal. Yes, even in this age of instant data, there are still places where it’s nearly impossible to use technology.

As someone who has seen these fires close up (I was about driving on Interstate 80 on October 8 when all traffic was stopped for the Apple Hill Fire), it’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of the damage they do and the bravery of those who will stand between us and those flames to protect lives and property.