Using GIS to Monitor the West Coast Wildfires

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With fires raging in California, Oregon, and Washington, scientists, activists, geospatial companies, and others are using GIS and spatial data to better inform and protect communities. Data changes quickly and there are a variety of needs that GIS can fulfill during the crisis. New data have also become available that allows a faster way for us to monitor events as they unfold.

Mapping Wildfires, Smoke, and Air Pollution Along the West Coast

Esri, the maker of ArcGIS, has used the ArcGIS Live Atlas of the World, a collection of varied global data including air quality, to provide up-to-date fire and air quality data in the regions where wildfires are raging. Data from the National Weather Service Smoke Forecast are integrated into spatial layers that provide 48 hour smoke and fire forecasts with 1-hour intervals. The US EPA also provides the AirNow Air Quality Monitoring Site, which is updated every hour. The data provide concentration of pollutants and overall safety based on air quality, such as health or unhealthy levels, given for each location monitoring tools are present, while allow for interpolated data based on the nearby monitoring points.[1] Other applications have also become popular in recent days, such as PurpleAir and IQAir, which provide monitors and application data to users on air quality. A PurpleAir map from September 11, 2020 shows air quality being mostly hazardous for the entire west coast (related: Track Real-Time Air Pollution With this Crowdsourced Map).[2]

The PurpleAir map crowdsources air quality readings from Internet of Things sensors.
The PurpleAir map crowdsources air quality readings from Internet of Things sensors. Screenshot captured August 25, 2020.

Near Real-Time Monitoring of Wildfires

Government data, particularly provided by the USGS, allows near real-time monitoring of events using online mapping tools. The USGS LANDFIRE Data Distribution Site allows users to click on different regions within the lower 48 states to get current data on ongoing fires.[3] The University of California also has a site for monitoring of active fires in the state, although heavy use of the site have limited a more rapid dissemination of data.[4] Google has added data within its mapping features to allow local fires to be monitored, including information such as if fires are largely contained and how large a given fire is across a designated region.[5] In fact, both in the Maps and Search apps by Google, one can simply now look within these tools to get hourly updates that integrate USGS and satellite data that show fire spread.[6]

Screenshot from the Fire Activity Map from the University of California Cooperative Extension.  Taken September 13, 2020.
Screenshot from the Fire Activity Map from the University of California Cooperative Extension. Taken September 13, 2020.

There are potential lessons from the west coast wildfires that can be applied in the future. After devastating wildfires in Indonesia in 2015, companies working in that region are increasingly using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and internet of things (IoT) technologies to provide rapid and real-time data that monitor atmospheric conditions, including humidity and carbon dioxide readings. The data also integrate satellite information. Platforms such as Global Forest Watch provide a way to more quickly detect emerging fires by integrating satellite and IoT data with machine learning analytics that determine if given data indicate the presence of an emerging fire or even if conditions indicate an elevated risk for a fire (related: Global Forest Watch: A Real-Time Mapping Project). The lesson here is that a closer integration between ground-based sensors and satellite-based monitoring, with machine learning used to assist in more rapid analysis and detection, could help mitigate or at least improve fire responses, including evacuation of communities that might be most threatened by emerging threats.[7]

The wildfires in the west coast have already been designated as some of the worst in the region’s history. Fortunately, there are new tools available that allow us to monitor events in near real-time, particularly air quality and the location of fires that can threaten life. Lessons from previous fires also show we may need to improve preventative measures such as faster responses in mitigating fire impact. Integrating IoT, satellite, and UAV data, and applying machine learning techniques could offer some potential for improved responses. With climate change certainly threatening to lead to larger and more devastating wildfires in the future, new techniques and monitoring capabilities might needed to be integrated more quickly to mitigate fire impact in the future. 


[1]    For more on air quality and related data used with ArcGIS products, see:

[2]    For the latest map on air quality from PurpleAir, see:


[3]    For more on USGS landfire data, see:

[4]    For more on University of California’s data, see:

[5]    For more on Google Map information of wildfires, see:

[6]    For more on functionality within Google features, see a August 20th Wired article:

[7]    For more on Global Forest Watch, see:



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