GIS Apps Spurred on Recovery After the Fort McMurray Wildfire
Here’s an interesting account of how GIS experts’ quick-thinking put a fully-automated rapid damage assessment solution in shape for Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Alberta. Not only did this GIS-enabled app, Fire Assessment Tool, help the public get a better picture of the damages and prepare their claims but also facilitated the phased re-entry of residents into the city.
As Canadians, we all remember being transfixed by images of the wildfire that tore through Fort McMurray, Alberta, in May 2016, which triggered the sudden evacuation of 90,000 people. In just a few short days, 2,400 homes and buildings were consumed by the fire, leaving thousands of residents homeless and distraught.
As the tragedy unfolded before our eyes in the national media, most of us probably weren’t looking past the immediate turmoil to see what would come next. However, even as the fire burned out of control, there were people already hard at work preparing for the region’s post-fire recovery. Two of those people were Kevin McClement and Justin Ngan.
McClement, a senior data and GIS analyst at the Alberta Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC), was called up to support the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) during the wildfire crisis. A veteran of the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire and the 2013 Southern Alberta floods, McClement realized that as soon as the flames died down, inspectors would have to enter Fort McMurray and conduct a rapid damage assessment (RDA) of the buildings so that decision-makers could begin formulating a recovery plan.
Ngan, manager of geographic information systems (GIS) for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, where Fort McMurray is located, was thinking along the same lines—recovery—but with more focus on the displaced residents. A resident of Fort McMurray himself, he understood the intense anxiety that thousands felt, not knowing when they could return home or if they even had a home to return to.
“Can you imagine what it’s like to sit there and wonder what happened?” asked Ngan. “When we were thinking about how to get information to our residents, the big question was, ‘How do we help the people who have lost their homes to start the grieving process?’ We thought, the best thing we can do is give them information they can actually use.”
An RDA Solution Takes Shape
Shortly after the wildfire crisis began, Steven Bibby, manager of security and emergency services at BC Housing, received an email from an emergency management colleague in Alberta saying, “We’re going to need that app.”
The app in question was an ArcGIS web application that BC Housing had just developed for visualizing RDA data collected after a large-scale event such as an earthquake, a flood—or a fire. BC Housing had also created a custom RDA template for Collector for ArcGIS, a mobile app for recording data in the field.
“I fired off an email to the folks at Esri Canada,” recalled Bibby. “At that point, I didn’t know exactly what Alberta needed from a technical standpoint, so I just said, ‘Give them everything we’ve got.’” Esri Canada quickly made the data available to the Alberta Government, and McClement took over from there.
“We worked with Esri Canada to implement BC Housing’s RDA attributes,” said McClement. “Then we modified them to make the application a little more fire-related, and that’s what we published to ArcGIS Online. We chose ArcGIS Online because we didn’t know how much traffic to expect, plus we didn’t want to rely on hardware that could potentially be in the damage area.”
McClement’s new mapping tool included Wood Buffalo’s cadastral information, showing individual lots and addresses, overlaid with the fire extent. Buildings were colour-coded according to their assigned status, making it easy for users to visualize the overall situation. Following the Applied Technology Council (ATC) placard system used by RDA inspectors in the field, the tool featured red for “unsafe”, yellow for “restricted use” and green for “inspected”. The app also employed two additional colours: gray for “uninspected” (added by BC Housing) and blue for “destroyed” (added by McClement).
Initially, the app was used to monitor the extent of the fire, with the RDA data coming later when it was safe for inspectors to do their job.
Introducing Wood Buffalo’s Fire Assessment Tool
During the evacuation, Ngan’s team had been scattered all over the region, so he enlisted several remote consultants to help him develop his “fire map”, a GIS-based online tool that would enable displaced residents to see which properties had been damaged by the wildfire.
“We contacted Pictometry and asked if they could get a plane up here to take new aerial imagery,” said Ngan. “Kevin (McClement) helped us make that happen because, at the time, there was a no-fly restriction. While he was doing that, we were working on the app.”
The Fire Assessment Tool, as the app came to be called, was completed in a four-day development whirlwind. The address-searchable tool featured two components: a Fire Map showing before-and-after overhead images, and a Fire Report that displayed detailed before-and-after oblique images from all sides of each property, along with the map-view location and relevant RDA data (to be supplied by McClement).
“The map-view location shown on each property report is a basemap we generated with Esri tools,” said Ngan. “For the images, we used a Pictometry tool called Gateway that allowed us to take address points from our Esri database and pull multidirectional views of every property in town. Then, we stitched that all up and packaged it in a web viewer.”
Knowing that initial traffic would be high, Ngan chose to host the app on the servers of a large, proven cloud provider offering robust, scalable services.
RDA Inspections Proceed
About two weeks after the evacuation, RDA inspectors were finally cleared to re-enter the city and conduct building assessments. McClement went with the team, training them on how to use Collector to fill out RDA forms, attach pictures and upload data to the cloud. He remained with the team for the first four days, coaching them on the use of the app, vetting the data and generally supporting the inspection effort.
“We had about 20 attributes to fill in for every property,” he explained. “Some were just text for notes, but others captured information such as primary type of construction, primary occupancy and how much damage was evaluated. One key attribute recorded damage to utilities—gas meters, for example.”
In just a few days, the inspectors canvassed the entire city, collecting data on tens of thousands of buildings. With help from McClement on the backend, the full RDA dataset was soon accessible via the new ArcGIS Online app.
The Alberta RDA app displayed houses colour-coded by status, such as “unsafe” (red) and “destroyed” (blue).
Inspectors recorded damage assessment data through this custom template created for the Collector app.
In addition to ArcGIS Online, McClement and his colleagues employed several other GIS tools to communicate RDA information to their numerous stakeholders. Both during and after the crisis, they used ArcGIS Desktop to analyze the RDA results and create briefing materials for their executives and the media.
“We deployed Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS to the Regional and Provincial Emergency Operations Centres to better track the inspectors’ progress and visualize the scale of the damage,” added McClement. “The damage assessments themselves were actioned by the municipality, which used the information to cordon off hazardous areas, estimate the extent of the damage to each neighbourhood and so on.”
Impact of Mobile and GIS on RDA
“I think it’s important to recognize that RDA is a spatial exercise,” observed McClement. “It doesn’t translate well from paper or spreadsheets. It needs to be visualized on a map—for example, to show how Fort McMurray’s damaged and destroyed areas were 100% in line with the fire extent.”
From a communications standpoint, the advantages of mapping the RDA data were apparent to him right from the outset. The decision to use mobile and GIS technology was further vindicated by how fast the province was able to collect, analyze and disseminate reliable RDA information to all of its stakeholders.
Improved data quality was another major benefit of the new approach. By enabling inspectors to upload information directly, the province not only saved time and streamlined communications but also eliminated a significant source of human error, namely the army of clerical workers who are required to manually input paper reports into a computer system.
“I’m a firm believer in near-real-time data capture with GIS because it helps describe the picture faster and more accurately,” said McClement. “It’s similar to a chart of spreadsheet data; the chart is more meaningful to most people than the actual raw data. Using Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS, our executive could see at a glance how many single-family dwellings, multifamily dwellings or industrial/commercial properties were affected.”
Launching the Fire Assessment Tool
With all of the RDA data compiled, Ngan was finally able to put the finishing touches on the Fire Assessment Tool. In an effort to smooth the way for residents’ property insurance claims, the municipality pre-released the tool to insurers and agents so they could understand the scope of the damage caused by the wildfire and prepare for a large influx of claims. Coordinating with the province, Wood Buffalo made the Fire Assessment Tool available to the public several days later.
Wood Buffalo’s Fire Assessment Tool produced fire reports that showed before-and-after images of a property, its location on a map and RDA data.
“What’s striking is that we didn’t know how much people would appreciate this app until it got out there,” said Ngan. “It did not receive a single negative comment on social media. All we heard was praise and thank-yous, even from people whose homes had burned.”
Among Ngan’s colleagues at the Regional EOC, feedback on the Fire Assessment Tool was likewise positive. “What we heard from provincial agencies, the media and insurance agents who had experience from Slave Lake and High River was that this was the fastest that people were able to get information after such an event,” he recalled.
Following the app’s successful launch, Ngan went on to support the recovery effort in other ways. For instance, he and his team produced a variety of maps to help with planning the phased re-entry of residents to the city. The Fire Assessment Tool, however, still stands out in his memory of the event.
Takeaways, One Year Later
Kevin McClement on GIS-Enabled RDA
According to Kevin McClement, Alberta is now well-positioned to handle future events as far as RDA is concerned. “BC Housing kept all hazards in mind and so did we,” he explained. “The app has more than just fire attributes; it has attributes for flood and earthquake as well. I don’t think we have to change much to deploy it for the next emergency.”
The Alberta Government, acting through the Public Safety Division of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, is planning to offer RDA as a service to municipalities impacted by major events. With access to inspectors from various disciplines—building, fire, electrical, plumbing and gas—Public Safety is uniquely suited to set up and coordinate the service going forward.
The Fire Assessment Tool also provided overhead views of neighbourhoods before and after the fire.
Emergency managers who are considering a switch to GIS technology should heed these two parting RDA tips from McClement:
First, don’t wait for a crisis to initiate a GIS solution. To maximize the value of your response to an event, you must be prepared to put boots on the ground as soon as it’s safe. This means having RDA apps, hardware, people and training ready to go in advance.
Second, if possible, acquire address points from the municipality. This will allow inspectors to both access and collect data that they otherwise would not be able to. McClement used this example to illustrate his point: “Let’s say there was a basement suite that inspectors didn’t know about because they could only see that the structure was destroyed. If they had address points, they could capture more than one RDA point because technically two properties were destroyed—there were two addresses.”
“Using Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS, our executive could see at a glance how many single-family dwellings, multifamily dwellings, or industrial/commercial properties were affected.”
-Kevin McClement, Senior Data & GIS Analyst, Alberta Office of the Fire Commissioner
Survey123 is used to track asset conditions as Fort McMurray rebuilds damaged properties.
Justin Ngan on Local Impacts of GIS
As for Justin Ngan, he and his team continue to support Wood Buffalo’s Recovery Task Force with GIS analyses and maps. “The municipality has identified a number of safety improvements, such as better egress roads and new FireSmart initiatives, so all of that needs to be planned,” he said. “It’s very map-based and visual.”
Ngan shares that a seasoned member of his staff, James Dean, has relied on Esri’s release of additional field apps like Survey123 for ArcGIS to support the Recovery Taskforce. “James has deployed Survey123 to track conditions of our municipal assets during the various phases of rebuilding homes that’s currently happening,” he said.
One year after the wildfire crisis, Ngan regards his experience with an obvious mixture of pride and sadness. When asked what he’d do differently next time, he paused a long time before answering.
Finally, he said, “After we were allowed to return home and everyone was sharing their experiences, people would ask what I’d been doing. I’d say, ‘You know that fire map? We put that together.’ And I’d get responses like, ‘That was the best thing ever! It helped me so much.’ So, would I do anything differently? Not really.”
“What we heard from provincial agencies, the media, and insurance agents who had experience from Slave Lake and High River was that this was the fastest that people were able to get information after such an event.”
-Justin Ngan, GIS Manager, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
Esri Canada Releases Public Information Apps
During the Fort McMurray wildfire, Esri Canada developed several apps to keep the public updated on what was happening on the ground.
Through the Esri Disaster Response Program, Esri and Esri Canada’s Public Safety teams developed the Fort McMurray Wildfires Public Information App, which showed live data on the wildfires, as well as related geotagged social media content, traffic and weather information.
The Public Information App displayed post-wildfire imagery from DigitalGlobe, which local law enforcement used to aid in protecting the community from potential vandalism.
Esri Canada also created the Alberta Wildfires Swipe Map, which used DigitalGlobe satellite imagery taken before and after the Fort McMurray wildfire to show the path and extent of the devastation the fire had caused.
Through the haze from fires that burned near the city, the swipe map enabled the public to see the outline of neighbourhood streets and building foundations where family homes once stood. Widgets allowed users to navigate to the various neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray and view additional layers of information including the latest active fires. Explore Fort McMurray: Before & After the Wildfire.