Udall looks into geospatial tech
SUMMIT COUNTY – Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, is looking to the skies for help with everything from combating wildfires to helping community planners make smart growth and development decisions.
Udall and Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., requested a study from the General Accounting Office (GAO) last year to determine if geospatial technology could be used to help community planners and firefighters.
Udall and Hefley introduced legislation to help municipalities access the technology and address challenges associated with using it. The legislation passed out of the Science Committee’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee this week.
Geospatial information technology (GIT) comprises sensors and computer software that collect and analyze information about places on the Earth’s surface.
Such technology could help planners determine such things as where flood plains are, how geological formations might affect development and can help in infrastructure planning. Although many planning departments use a variety of such technology, it’s not being used as efficiently as it could be, the GAO report said. The primary challenge is a lack of interagency coordination.
After the devastating wildfires of 2002, Udall and Hefley also wondered if the technology could be useful in wildland firefighting.
Using such technologies as Global Positioning Systems, Geographic Information Systems, radar, sonar, heat detectors and cameras, officials could collect an array of information before, during and after a wildfire.
For instance, prior to a fire, the technology could be used to identify high-risk areas, evaluate changes in vegetation and fuel accumulations and determine how close fuels are to communities.
During the fire, such technology could detect, monitor and map information, thus aiding firefighters in planning attacks. After the fire, information could be used to determine the impact of the fire and plan for emergent and long-term rehabilitation efforts.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to access geospatial imagery gathered from the air and from space to help us manage our forests and to guard against forest fires,” Hefley said. “The technology exists to measure fuel loading in our forests in order to pinpoint where preventive action needs to be taken. Likewise, the technology exists to pinpoint those burned areas that could threaten our watersheds and are most in need of rehabilitation. The thoughtful use of such technology would be a boon to our forest managers and, I believe, could save the taxpayers millions of dollars.”
The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Agency, comprised of the Bureau of Land Management, the White River National Forest, Collbran and Grand Junction Ranger districts of the Grand Mesa and the Uncompaghre, and Gunnison national forests, is a bit ahead of the game.
“We use them quite a bit,” said Eric Rebitzke, assistant fire management officer for the east zone of the fire management agency. “We have GPS on all the engines and our attack squads. We use it to map out perimeters of fires during initial attack stages, to get to the site, we switch datum and use them to call in air resources, we can hook them up to computers and download information.”
The agency is collecting historical data that will be overlaid with GIS maps of fuels, topography, and it will use that information in planning efforts.
“The technology is fairly new,” Rebitzke said. “It’ll take a bit of time for people to understand its use. We’re well on our way to incorporating some of this stuff into everyday work.”
The agency is also beginning to work with local fire departments on projects related to the urban interface, described as the area where the forest meets civilization.
Udall said he wasn’t surprised by the GAO’s study conclusions.
“We’ve known for some time about the availability of sophisticated technologies that can help prevent fires, monitor their spread and help in restoration efforts after they have occurred,” he said. “It seems to me that as long as we are allocating resources to firefighting and fire risk-reduction projects, we should do it right to ensure that these agencies have the best available tools at their disposal.”
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