Mapping fires and fire damage in real time: available geospatial tools

Many of us have watched in horror and sadness over the previous week as fires consumed much of the beautiful hills and parts of the towns of Napa and Sonoma Counties. Many of us know people who were evacuated with a few minutes’ notice - I met a retired man who left his retirement home with the clothes on his back. Many other friends lost everything - house, car, pets. It was a terrible event - or series of events as there were many active fires. During those 8+ days all of us were glued to our screens searching for up-to-date and reliable information on where the fires were, and how they were spreading. This information came from reputable, reliable sources (such as NASA, or the USFS), from affected residents (from Twitter and other social media), and from businesses (like Planet, ESRI, and Digital Globe who were sometimes creating content and sometimes distilling existing content), and from the media (who were ofen using all of the above). As a spatial data scientist, I am always thinking about mapping, and the ways in which geospatial data and analysis plays an increasingly critical role in disaster notification, monitoring, and response. I am collecting information on the technological landscape of the various websites, media and social media, map products, data and imagery that played a role in announcing and monitoring the #TubbsFire, #SonomaFires and #NapaFires. I think a retrospective of how these tools, and in particular how the citizen science aspect of all of this, helped and hindered society will be useful.  

In the literature, the theoretical questions surrounding citizen science or volunteered geography revolve around:

  • Accuracy – how accurate are these data? How do we evaluate them?  

  • Access – Who has access to the data? Are their technological limits to dissemination?

  • Bias (sampling issues)/Motivation (who contributes) are critical.

  • Effectiveness – how effective are the sites? Some scholars have argued that VGI can be inhibiting. 

  • Control - who controls the data, and how and why?

  • Privacy - Are privacy concerns lessened post disaster?

I think I am most interested in the accuracy and effectiveness questions, but all of them are important.  If any of you want to talk more about this or have more resources to discuss, please email me:, or Twitter @nmaggikelly.

Summary so far. This will be updated as I get more information.

Outreach from ANR About Fires

Core Geospatial Technology During Fires

Core Technology for Post-Fire Impact


Aerial photography archives

Notes on where to find historical aerial imagery (thanks to Kass Green): The USDA has an archive of aerial imagery in Salt Lake City at APFO  There is a ArcGIS online map of the  tiles and dates of this photos. Search in ArcGIS online for the AFPO Historical Availability Tile Layer. USDA is in the process of scanning these photos, but you can order them through a manual process now (which can take a long time). 

The EROS data center in Sioux Falls also has an archive of high altitude photos for the US from the 1980s.  Also check out  and .  These photos are available digitally, but are not terrain corrected or georeferenced.

Where is the best source for NAIP information for California?

How many times has NAIP been acquired for California? 
According to DFG, we have:

  • NAIP 2014 aerial imagery, 1 m, 4 variations (natural color, 4-band, CIR/false color, NDVI)
  • NAIP 2012 aerial imagery, 1 m, 4 variations (natural color, 4-band, CIR/false color, NDVI) 
  • NAIP 2010 aerial imagery, 1 m, 4 variations (natural color, 4-band, CIR/false color, NDVI) 
  • NAIP 2009 aerial imagery, 1 m, 4 variations (natural color, 4-band, CIR/false color, NDVI) 
  • NAIP 2005 aerial imagery, 1 m (natural color)

I was not aware the flight schedule was this frequent. 

Still, I can't find a definitive information source that helps. 

Sonoma County's historic aerial photographs

As part of the massive ongoing effort to map Sonoma County with high-res imagery and lidar, historic imagery of the county was collected and georeferenced. The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District funded SFEI to mosaic 72 historic aerials taken over Sonoma County by the Department of Defense in 1942. Mark Tukman put together this web service with a image swiping tool showing the combination of the 2011 imagery service and the mosaiced historic imagery.

About the historic imagery: In 1942, the Department of War collected air photos in anticipation of a possible strike.  These photos are the earliest complete image set for Sonoma County and give us an unprecedented look at Sonoma County's agriculture and open space prior to the post World War II baby boom.

These images are snaps from the service, both from an area outside Rohnert Park in Sonoma County: on the left is the image from 1942, on the right is the area in 2011 showing considerable development.

2011 image

1942 aerial

LDCM releases first images of Earth!

Turning on new satellite instruments is like opening new eyes. This week, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) released its first images of Earth, collected at 1:40 p.m. EDT on March 18. The first image shows the meeting of the Great Plains with the Front Ranges of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and Colorado. The natural-color image shows the green coniferous forest of the mountains coming down to the dormant brown plains. The cities of Cheyenne, Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont, Boulder and Denver string out from north to south. Popcorn clouds dot the plains while more complete cloud cover obscures the mountains.

Much more on the story and the images here:

Aerial photography highlighted on new US Forever Stamps

Check out some of the gorgeous imagery that will be featured on a new series of US stamps. NASA imagery is highlighted, and the South Bay Salt ponds are featured on one stamp (see below). From the US Postal Service:

"Depicting America’s diverse landscapes on photos taken from ultra lights to satellites, the Earthscapes stamps provide a view of the nation’s diverse landscapes in a whole new way — from heights ranging from several hundred feet above the earth to several hundred miles in space.

south bay salt pondsThe stamps provide an opportunity to see the world in a new way by presenting examples of three categories of earthscapes: natural, agricultural, and urban. The photographs were all taken high above the planet’s surface, either snapped by satellites orbiting the Earth or carefully composed by photographers in aircraft. Howard E. Paine of Delaplane, VA, was the art director."


Bing Maps completes Global Ortho project for US

The Bing Maps team has anounced the completion of the Global Ortho Project for the US.  The project provides 30cm resolution imagery for the entire US, all acquired within the last 2 years.  You can access all of the imagery now through Bing Maps, it is pretty amazing to see such detail for all of the far off places that typically don't get high resolution attention. 

Find out more about the project from the Bing Maps Blog, or view the data for yourself.

See the bigger picture. Make a better world.

Earlier this week we in ESPM heard a report from the folks in the SWIRL marketing team, who have been working to extract the essence of what we do in ESPM and in CNR. Their proposed tagline for us is: "See the bigger picture. Make a better world." Which aptly describes what we do in applied geospatial sciences. I kinda wish I'd thought it up myself. And since this summer marks the 40th anniversary of the Landsat program, I thought I'd use this post to talk about how our ability to observe the earth from space does indeed fit this new tagline.

July 23, 1972 ERTS Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS), later christened Landsat 1, was launched into a near-polar orbit. We had our first earth-watching, civilian science satellite. ERTS instruments recorded information in four spectral bands: red, green, and two infrared.

Remote sensing missions have continued through the decades that followed, making modern earth system science, landscape ecology, agriculture prediction, and many other fields possible. The Landsat missions continue with some blips: Landsat2 was launched in 1975, Landsat 3 in 1978; Landsat 4 in 1982 and Landsat 5 in 1984; in 1993 funds were found to keep Landsat 4 and 5 operational just before Landsat 6 failed upon launch in 1993 and ended up in the Indian Ocean. Landsat 5 only recently gave out after 27 year of imaging; Landsat 7, launched in 1999 continues its work as well.  The eighth satellite, dubbed the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), is scheduled for launch in 2013. It will be the next chapter for the longest-operating Earth-observing program in the world. More information here:

Landsat 7 is entirely government owned and operated, and after launch, the USGS was charged with distributing the data at government (nonprofit) rates. Today, the USGS distributes Landsat data over the Internet for free, and usage has exploded. Back in the day, we had to pay for each scene individually. This tended to limit the ability to work at regional, let alone global scales.  The new model of data distribution has made a number of on-line resources and visuzalizations possible.  Additionally, there are currently a quarter of a million science citations that use Landsat imagery, focusing on agriculture, oceans, land change, urban and natural areas.

The first fully operational Landsat image taken on July 25, 1972, inaugurating a 40-year run when the first satellite was known as the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, or ERTS. Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory

This image above was the first image from the Landsat program. It shows Dallas, TX. Check out those reservoirs!

Some nice write-ups about Landsat:

Landsat imagery:

Happy Fall Semester 2012!

Drought imagery from MODIS

As the warm weather moves west this week we think about those battling the drought in the midwest and northern states. Here is a shot from July from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor, on the Terra satellite.  The map contrasts plant health in the United States between June 25 and July 10, 2012, against the average conditions between 2002 and 2012. Brown areas show where plant growth was less vigorous than normal; cream colors depict normal levels of growth; and green indicates abnormally lush vegetation. Data was not available in the gray areas due to snow or cloud cover. From NASA.

New software to extract geographically representative images from Google Street View

New software developed by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and INRIA in Paris mines the geotagged imagery in Google Street View to uncover what architectural features distinguish one city from another across the globe. The software is based upon a discriminative clustering algorithm to distinguish features in one picture from another. This research shows that geographically representative image elements can be discovered automatically from Google Street View imagery in a discriminative manner.

Jacob Aron from the New Scientist reports:

"The researchers selected 12 cities from across the globe and analysed 10,000 Google Street View images from each. Their algorithm searches for visual features that appear often in one location but infrequently elsewhere...It turns out that ornate windows and balconies, along with unique blue-and-green street signs, characterise Paris, while columned doorways, Victorian windows and cast-iron railings mark London out from the rest. In the US, long staircases and bay windows mean San Francisco, and gas-powered street lamps are scattered throughout Boston."

"The discovered visual elements can also support a variety of computational geography tasks, such as mapping architectural correspondences and influences within and across cities, finding representative elements at different geo-spatial scales, and geographically-informed image retrieval."

Read the full story by clicking here.

To read the research paper and view the project website click here.

ASPRS 2012 Wrap-up

ASPRS 2012, held in Sacramento California, had about 1,100 participants. I am back to being bullish about our organization, as I now recognize that ASPRS is the only place in geospatial sciences where members of government, industry, and academia can meet, discuss, and network in a meaningful way. I saw a number of great talks, met with some energetic and informative industry reps, and got to catch up with old friends. Some highlights: Wednesday's Keynote speaker was David Thau from Google Earth Engine whose talk "Terapixels for Everyone" was designed to showcase the ways in which the public's awareness of imagery, and their ability to interact with geospatial data, are increasing. He calls this phenomena (and GEE plays a big role here): "geo-literacy for all", and discussed new technologies for data/imagery acquisition, processing, and dissemination to a broad public(s) that can include policy makers, land managers, and scientists. USGS's Ken Hudnut was Thursday's Keynote, and he had a sobering message about California earthquakes, and the need (and use) of geospatial intelligence in disaster preparedness.

Berkeley was well represented: Kevin and Brian from the GIF gave a great workshop on open source web, Kevin presented new developments in cal-adapt, Lisa and Iryna presented chapters from their respective dissertations, both relating to wetlands, and our SNAMP lidar session with Sam, Marek, and Feng (with Wenkai and Jacob from UCMerced) was just great!

So, what is in the future for remote sensing/geospatial analysis as told at ASPRS 2012? Here are some highlights:

  • Cloud computing, massive datasets, data/imagery fusion are everywhere, but principles in basic photogrammetry should still comes into play;
  • We saw neat examples of scientific visualization, including smooth rendering across scales, fast transformations, and immersive web;
  • Evolving, scaleable algorithms for regional or global classification and/or change detection; for real-time results rendering with interactive (on-the-fly) algorithm parameter adjustment; and often involving open source, machine learning;
  • Geospatial data and analysis are heavily, but inconsistently, deployed throughout the US for disaster response;
  • Landsat 8 goes up in January (party anyone?) and USGS/NASA are looking for other novel parterships to extend the Landsat lifespan beyond that;
  • Lidar is still big: with new deployable and cheaper sensors like FLASH lidar on the one hand, and increasing point density on the other;
  • Obia, obia, obia! We organized a nice series of obia talks, and saw some great presentations on accuracy, lidar+optical fusion, object movements; but thorny issues about segmentation accuracy and object ontology remain; 
  • Public interaction with imagery and data are critical. The Public can be a broader scientific community, or a an informed and engaged community who can presumably use these types of data to support public policy engagement, disaster preparedness and response.

Landscape as palimpsest

I am reading a fascinating book this January (xmas gift from the parents) by Jonathan Raban called Driving Home: An American Journey. He is a wonderful writer, and in the introduction he discusses his love of reading, travel and landscapes. He puts all of these into a kind of analytical framework, and discusses how one can observe and consider writing, language, and landscapes as a way to better understand people, context, place and history. Consider this marvelous paragraph:

Trying to understand the habitat in which we live requires an ability to read it - and not just in a loose metaphorical sense. Every inhabited landscape is a palimpsest (this is me now: what an awesome word! see below for definition), its original parchment nearly blackened with the cross-hatching of successive generations of authors, claiming this place as their own and imposing their designs on it, as if their temporary interpretations would stand forever. Later overwriting has obscured all but a few, incompletely erased fragments of the earliest entries on the land, but one can still pick out a phrase here, a word there, and see how the most recently dried layer is already being partially effased with fresh ink.

From wikipedia: A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again. I had not heard of its used as a metaphor for a landscape before, but I like it!

Hajdúböszörmény, Hungary. LandsatYesterday this NASA image post came across my screen as a fitting example of what Raban is talking about. In the  text that accompanies the image, they say "The history of Hajdúböszörmény, Hungary, echoes across its name and over its outline on the land." They go on to discuss the derivation of its name, which echoes past conflicts and local economy, and show how its history is written on the land, in layers of land use. 

"The city is round, a shape easily defended on the flat North Pannonian Plain in northeastern Hungary. The livestock-based economy may also play a role in the shape of the city. The center is densely built, a concentrated ellipse of tan and white. Surrounding the center is a slightly less dense circle, marked by diagonal roads, which held stockyards and gardens. Even today, tiny spots of green indicate that this area contains more open garden space than the city center."

Hooray for geography, landscape history and remote sensing. All fascinating subjects to study. And, I recently found this blogpost from Tim DeChant, former grad student and honorary geographer, in which he describes "ghosts of geography".

3D Street level mapping with earthmine


earthmine's Anthony Fassero visited yesterday to give a Geolunch presentation and blew us away with the amazing technology that they are employing!  Anthony, and Co-Founder John Ristevski started earthmine just a few years ago after graduating from Cal. 

earthmine has developed the camera system and engineering to take high resolution 3d street level images using only photogrammetric techniques (no lidar), as well as software tools that allow users to work with the data directly in ArcGIS and other geospatial applications. These tools allow you to not only view the data alongside a map, but to actualy make 3d measurements one the fly and edit ancillary data layers from within the phot view.

You have to see it for yourself!  Check out this video to see teh data and tools in action.

Fire in the Great Dismal Swamp, VI

A nice example of remote sensing for fire: this visualization allows you to compare the utility of hyperspectral images to see through the smoke and map fire scars. The article is about a lightning strick fire in the fantastically named "Great Dismal Swamp" in Virginia. Hurricane Irene might put a damper on the fire.

“Eight inches of rain will not put the fire out,” said Tim Craig, Fire Management Officer for the refuge. “It will buy us time to clear our way through the downed trees back to the fire zone after the storm.” Irene generously drenched the swamp with 10 – 15 inches of rain, but initial assessments show that the fire is still burning. Before the storm, the Lateral West fire was 35 percent contained. Smoke still rose from at least 30 acres after the storm though open flames were no longer visible and the fire did not spread under Irene’s strong winds, said local news reports. The sudden flush of rain left puddles that are still soaking in to the soil and may yet help extinguish the fire.

See the interactive tool and article here.

A bit late, but the tornado track from Tuscaloosa, AL

NASA has released a unique satellite image tracing the damage of a monster EF-4 tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27th. It combines visible and infrared data to reveal damage unseen in conventional photographs.

"This is the first time we've used the ASTER instrument to track the wake of a super-outbreak of tornadoes," says NASA meteorologist Gary Jedlovec of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.

How would you map it? as a line or as a field?

Another cool image of the tornado track.

Forest clearing and regrowth in Washington

These shots (both Landsat 5) are from much larger images provided by NASA Earth Observatory. They depict forest clearing and regrowth in Washington state. The checkerboard pattern is typical of land ownership patterns in the American West.  A nice article on this checkerboarded ownership patterns is here. The overall article talks about carbon storage and forestry; the point of the images below is 1) the pattern of clearing in 1984, which is really quite interesting and abstract, and 2) the regrowth in 2010.


From the article:

This pair of images, both from the Landsat 5 satellite, shows grids of forest disappearing and gradually regrowing over 26 years. In 1984, logging in the area appears to be in the early stages. In many places, red-brown earth is exposed under the swaths of freshly cut forest. Other grids, cleared just a bit earlier, are pale green with newly growing grasses or very young trees. The rest of the image is dominated by the deep green of dense, mature forest. In 2010, the logging operation seems to be more mature. There is little evidence of fresh cuts, but some areas have been recently cleared. Pockets of mature forest remain, and forest is regrowing in other places. Grids that had been clear in 1984 are forested in 2010.

Trees become houses, furniture, paper products, and myriad other products that we use every day. Trees are also important because they take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to the sugars that make up the leaves and wood of the tree. Trees store carbon. The Earth Observatory’s new carbon cycle article describes the impact of deforestation on the carbon cycle:

When we clear forests, we remove a dense growth of plants that had stored carbon in wood, stems, and leaves—biomass. By removing a forest, we eliminate plants that would otherwise take carbon out of the atmosphere as they grow. We also expose soil that vents carbon from decayed plant matter into the atmosphere. Humans are currently emitting just under a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year through land use changes. Changes that put carbon gases into the atmosphere result in warmer temperatures on Earth.

Satellite images like these help scientists estimate how much carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere when a forest is cleared, and how much carbon dioxide is being taken out of the atmosphere as a forest regrows.

Read more in the Carbon Cycle feature.

Wallow fire image from Nasa

From the Nasa Earth Observatory: The newly burned land left in the wake of the Wallow Fire is dark red in this false-color image taken on June 15, 2011. The image, acquired by the Landsat 5 satellite, is made with infrared light. The slightly blue blur is smoke, and dots of bright orange-red on the south side of the burn are active fires. Unburned forest is green, and sparsely vegetated land is pink.

By the end of the day on June 15, the Wallow Fire had burned 487,016 acres of forest in eastern Arizona and was 20 percent contained. Most of the fire activity was on the south side of the fire, away from the majority of the communities that had been evacuated. Among the places evacuated were Greer and Eager, labeled in the image. Irrigated plants (like lawns) are pale spots of green and buildings are tiny dots of blue. Most of the 32 homes destroyed in the fire were in Greer, where the fire clearly burned to the edge of the community. While the burned area encroaches on Eager in places, a buffer of green separates the community from the fire.

Welcome to Fall 2010 with this stunner of a pic from NASA

Mataiva Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, South Pacific OceanFrom the NASA Earth Observatory Image of the Day: The Tuamotu Archipelago is part of French Polynesia, and forms the largest chain of atolls in the world. This astronaut photograph features Mataiva Atoll, the westernmost atoll of the Tuamotu chain. Mataiva Atoll is notable in that its central lagoon includes a network of ridges (white, image center) and small basins formed from eroded coral reefs. Mataiva means “nine eyes” in Tuamotuan, an allusion to nine narrow channels on the south-central portion of the island. The atoll is sparsely populated, with only a single village—Pahua—located on either side of the only pass providing constant connection between the shallow (light blue) water of the lagoon and the deeper (dark blue) adjacent Pacific Ocean. Much of the 10-kilometer- (6-mile-) long atoll is covered with forest (greenish brown). Vanilla and copra (dried coconut) are major exports from the atoll, but tourism is becoming a larger part of the economy.

This is not a satellite image, but a photograph taken by the Expedition 24 crew from the International Space Station (I think) on August 13, 2010, with a Nikon D2Xs digital camera using a 400 mm lens. More here.

Free Haiti Imagery through Digital Globe

Digital Globe is offering free access to Haiti imagery pre- and post-earthquake.

They're offering three ways to access the imagery:

  1. KML Overlay for Google Earth that displays the most current imagery for a given location.
  2. ImageConnect plug-in for GIS software that allows GIS professionals to view all the images that have been loaded to the Crisis Event Service.
  3. FTP access to GeoTIFF imagery from QuickBird, WorldView-1 and WorldView-2.

Register at this site for free imagery: