Printed on: November 21, 2012

ISU to aid BLM in fire reports

By Alex Stuckey
astuckey@postregister.com

As this year's fire season comes to a close, federal and state entities in Idaho are generating plans to stabilize and rehabilitate the 1.7 million acres of burned land.

One of these entities is the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM must take into account the elevation and slope of an area, as well as whether an area is wetland or used for grazing, when developing its Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation Plan.

But BLM officials don't have much time. An initial plan must be submitted within seven days after the wildfire control date. The complete Emergency Stabilization plan must be submitted to the appropriate state and/or federal office for approval within 21 calendar days. 

Compounding the problem is the fact that collecting this data is not easy. Officials must go to several different sources to compile this information.

"The guys on the ground can determine some of the slopes and ... what kind of terrain was burned," said Brian Holmes, a GIS specialist in the BLM's Pocatello office. "If we want burn severity information, we go through the U.S. Geological Survey, and we have to get other information in other places."

Performing those tasks in next year's season could be simpler. NASA granted Idaho State University's Geographic Information System Training and Research Center $180,000 to compile all the information the BLM needs on one software system.

"It'll look like Bing maps or Google maps," center Director Keith Weber said. "Where fire managers (now) have to go out and collect this data, they'll have all the geospatial data right at their fingertips."

The RECOVER Program -- a GIS-based fire recovery decision support system -- will compile 25 datasets that look at slope, soil information and fire severity and intensity, among other things, Weber said.

"This tool brings everything together," Weber said. "(The program) will demonstrate to the user that 'this spot over here is just as important as this spot over there.' Without this program, you miss some spots."

The program will make it easier for BLM officials to plan reseeding strategies and monitor ecosystem recovery in the aftermath of wildfires, according to an ISU news release.

Weber hopes the system will be ready for use in eastern Idaho by summer 2013. Ultimately, Weber would like to see the program in use across the state and the U.S.

Right now, the ISU team is working with BLM officials on what data they need to do their jobs. They're also collecting geospatial data throughout the area.

The key, Holmes said, is that this program will help bureau officials do their job more quickly.

"We don't have a lot of time to get a plan going after the fire is contained," Holmes said. "(The program) will help us by having all the data in a central location."