Wildfire experts share ideas

Wildfire management was discussed at this weekend's 6th annual Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN) conference.

BY HEATHER MOYER | WASHINGTON, D.C. | March 27, 2004



"We're projecting increased fire activity in the future."

—Dr. Albert Simard


Wildfire management was one of many topics discussed at this weekend's 6th annual Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN) conference as disaster relief workers and mitigation experts from 57 countries gathered in Washington, D.C., to share their knowledge.

At the plenary session discussing wildfire control, speakers focused on the global wildfire situation and what has worked in the United States to fight fires.

Dr. Johann Goldammer, head of the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC), spoke on his agency's current priority issues. He said the GFMC created a network to help with information on early warning systems, give situation updates to fire responders, help developing countries create a fire-fighting infrastructure, and provide support for policy-making institutions on international levels.

"GFMC is advising the United Nations on policy issues," said Goldammer. He added the GMFC also recently set up a wildfire management program at the United Nations University.

Dr. Albert Simard, director of Knowledge Management for Canada's Natural Resources Department, gave an overview on Canada's wildfire problems. An average of 7,700 wildfires hit Canada each year, he said. "This causes us to lose $1 billion in timber each year," said Simard.

He added that the fires cause $6.9 million in property loss annually. "That's actually a decent number considering the number of fires each year," he said. "We're pretty good at keeping fires out of residential neighborhoods."

Simard said the wildfires of 2003 were particularly harsh, though. "Many areas were suffering from years of serious drought," he said. He focused on the severity of the Okanagan Wildfire that ravaged British Columbia. "It was perhaps 50 years or more since we had a fire that serious," said Simard. "We're projecting increased fire activity in the future."

Simard said his department is currently proposing an analysis of the complex interactions between fire, communities and fire management officials. "Our goal is to get agencies to work better together," he said.

John Miller, Chief of the Virginia Department of Forestry Resource Protection, spoke next about his department's work. He said it might surprise some people that wildfires are something to worry about in the eastern United States. "A common misconception is that wildfires hit only western states," he said.

Miller said Virginia's wildfire management concerns are similar to those globally. "Wildland-urban interface is a problem in Virginia, as it is all over the world," he said. "More and more people are moving into wooded areas away from the cities -- that is essentially the root of the problem that we face."

To combat wildfires, Miller said his department put together a Geographic Information System (GIS) computer model to help determine wildfire risk across Virginia. The GIS allows for mapping of the state using different layers of information, including topography, population and hydrant locations. The department then renamed the GIS "ForestRIM" and made it accessible to the public on the Internet.

Miller said, among other things, ForestRIM helped them determine where to place more fire hydrants around the state.

From one Web-based mapping system to another, Elizabeth Lile of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) spoke next on her own department's system called GeoMAC. Sponsored by the National Interagency Fire Center, the tool meets both firefighters' and the public's need for status, location and proximity of wildfires.

"We started the Web site in 2000, and since then the number of hits has skyrocketed," said Lile.

Overall, the presenters all spoke of the importance of well-organized fire management programs that help both government and the public before, during and after wildfires. Goldammer said the GFMC sees the need for cooperation among fire management organizations around the world.

"We want to set up an informed global wildfire plan," he said.


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Related Links:

Geospatial Multi Agency Coordination Web site

Global Disaster Information Network Web Site

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