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Responding to wildfires with support from Esri’s Disaster Response Program

The Upper Tantallon wildfire destroyed over 200 structures and displaced over 16,400 people in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in late May and early June 2023. Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) scrambled to assess the devastation—and Esri’s Disaster Response Program supported them in doing so.

On May 28, 2023, at around 3:30 PM AST, a wildfire broke out and spread rapidly through the Halifax subdivision of Tantallon. The fires raged for a week. The Upper Tantallon wildfire ultimately burned over 950 hectares, displaced over 16,400 people and destroyed over 200 structures, most of them homes.

Nova Scotia is no stranger to storm- and flood-related disasters, but this unexpectedly early springtime wildfire required Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and its agencies to scramble. To quickly develop a way of assessing the unprecedented amount of wildfire-related property damage affecting its residents, HRM worked with Esri Canada on an ArcGIS-based damage assessment solution.

Reaching out in a time of need

Shortly after the Upper Tantallon wildfire began, Esri Canada’s Halifax team sprang into action.

Senior consultant Heather Noakes, practice manager Julie Roebotham and account manager Janice DeMont reached out to HRM to see if they needed support. When HRM confirmed that they did, the Esri Canada team helped secure assistance through Esri’s Disaster Response Program (DRP).

“The Atlantic Canada team went above and beyond in their support,” said Paul Shaffelburg, director of data analytics and visualization at HRM. “They proactively reached out to us in the early hours of the event.”

Through the DRP, HRM received additional licenses for their ArcGIS Online organization; Esri Canada technical staff worked with HRM to utilize an existing data template to enable damage assessment for that same organization.

As critical as this initial work was, so too was the ongoing support that Esri Canada provided throughout the wildfire timeline. 

  • On June 1, just three days after HRM was set up with damage assessment and licenses:
    • HRM sought support for building an app to share data from damage assessment inspections more widely. To accomplish this, Esri moved the HRM ArcGIS Online organization to an M1 Data Store.
    • Heather Noakes assisted HRM with creating a mobile-friendly app using the ArcGIS Experience Builder
  • By June 2, HRM was able to use the app for sharing damage assessment information with impacted residents.

How the Disaster Response Program helps organizations, large and small

For over 25 years, Esri’s Disaster Response Program (DRP) has supported organizations worldwide that are responding to crises and disasters. Through the program, Esri provides access to GIS technology to those who need it most, when they need it, whether they’re dealing with floods, wildfires, earthquakes, severe weather or other emergent crises.

The support Esri provides isn’t limited to technology. Through the DRP, Esri also provides human support for implementation—for example, if an organization needs help standing up a situational awareness capability or is setting up GIS for the first time. Organizations also gain access to critical data, such as real-time weather information, and technical support services.

The DRP has helped tens of thousands of organizations get through their toughest times by connecting communities to up-to-date information and managing mid- and post-disaster efforts. Read more about how Esri technology is helping with disaster response.

Local teams delivering local solutions

With 15 offices across the country, Esri Canada is a nationwide company with local teams who respond in times of crisis. When HRM was in need, it was Nova Scotia-based Esri Canada staff who helped them—because they were affected by the wildfires, too.

Heather, Julie and Janice were so tuned in to the crisis that they even worked on their solutions at the airport on their way to an out-of-province event. While waiting for their flights, they were building dashboards, assembling resources, creating templates, and providing technical support to HRM and the County.

Most important, however, was their depth of knowledge. Part of the reason they were able to stand up solutions and troubleshoot so quickly was their more than 30 years of combined GIS experience. They understand what each component of the ArcGIS system can and can’t do. Because of this, they’re able to be agile, answer questions rapidly and provide alternatives when needed.

A more resilient outlook

HRM now has some tools to enable timely and informed response to crisis situations. Through the DRP, they will continue to have access to these tools, along with additional ArcGIS software, for up to six months, free of charge. This additional software can help them with enhanced operations response, disaster recovery and analysis to reduce future risk--thereby creating safer, stronger communities and a more resilient province overall.

“GIS is recognized as having played a critical part in both the response and recovery phases of this event,” says Shaffelburg. “That would not have been possible without the support of the Esri Canada team, who were an amazing partner to us when it mattered most.”

Do you want to enhance your organization’s emergency preparedness and become more resilient to climate change? Explore the possibilities of GIS and reach out to get connected locally.

About the Author

Dani Pacey is a Marketing Specialist for Esri Canada. She digitized her first map at the tender age of 10 and has been fascinated by the relationships between people and places ever since. An avid technical communicator with degrees in Science & Technology Studies from York University and History of Science & Technology from the University of King's College, Dani has always blended science, social science and the humanities and loves bringing them all together to tell great stories about human life.

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