USA — ESRI has thrown its geographic information systems software and equipment and its experts into the battle against the raging Southland wildfires.
Tom Patterson, wildland fire specialist for Redlands-based ESRI, went to the Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest on Sunday and has been at the Oak Glen III Fire since Monday.
“I walked into the GIS unit at the Station Fire and said, `I’m from ESRI and I’m here to help,’ and they said, `Thank God!”‘ Patterson said Tuesday by phone from the Oak Glen incident command post.
ESRI, perhaps the nation’s top developer of geographic information systems for industry, defense, science and public safety providers, offers its services during wildfires. Experts like Patterson gather information for maps, bring heavy-duty printers called plotters, and upgrade software.
“Yesterday (Tom) got a list of needs for the Station Fire,” said Russ Johnson, ESRI’s public safety manager, early Tuesday. “He went to the Oak Glen fire and they asked if he would assist in producing maps, we produced them.
“Tom is out there (Tuesday) – we’re anticipating more requests for software, information for maps.”
Johnson said ESRI has people on standby, ready to help.
Patterson had a busy 24 hours, starting Monday afternoon.
“The perimeter has been so rapidly and dynamically moving – (Monday) they were having a hard time because it kept changing,” said Johnson, a former fire chief.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to drop by.
“We had three GIS specialists working the night shift, a major briefing we had to be ready for and then the governor showed up and we had to make additional apps for him,” Patterson said. “But we did it.”
“(Monday) I called Russ – `Can I have him, can I borrow him?”‘ said John Amrhein, emergency services coordinator for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which loaned its mobile mapping unit to firefighting efforts in Oak Glen.
“Tom can come in, sit down and start popping maps out. We love to have him.”
The irony, Patterson said, is he was returning from speaking at a fire rescue conference in Dallas when the wildfires flared up.
“We flew back and fire columns were (visible) everywhere,” said Patterson, a former deputy chief who worked for the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District and the National Park Service before retiring in 2006.
Patterson also volunteers with the Sheriff’s Department’s search-and-rescue efforts.
“ESRI’s always been very supportive of the Sheriff’s Department,” said Amrhein, who was at the Oak Glen fire Sunday and Monday. “We really like having them right down the street because they’ve been very supportive in having Tom help, not only in fires but search and rescue.”
“It’s (ESRI president) Jack’s (Dangermond’s) way of contributing to the community,” Patterson said.
Patterson has worked at fires in the San Bernardino National Forest and the Sawtooth Complex fires, among others. In February he helped Australian police use hand-held PDAs to map human remains following bush fires in Victoria, the deadliest natural disaster in the country’s history.
The positive side, he said, was something was done that he always talks about – getting real-time information to fire command posts.
“It’s cool when technology works, especially when you’re learning how to use it,” he said.
He said using ESRI technology, from desktop to mobile, is about keeping firefighters safe in the field.
“If we can produce accurate maps and get them to the command center, the less risk they take out there and you know how fast those fires move in Southern California,” he said.
When Patterson was at the Station Fire on Sunday, he helped with the plotters and installed the “latest and greatest” software.
“That’s when the Oak Glen fire called,” he said.
He and sheriff’s and Cal Fire employees have been working out of the sheriff’s 40-foot motorhome, which is dedicated to geographic information systems.
“The Fire Department uses GIS extensively and has for years,” Amrhein said. “Because there’s so many fires they’re spread thin, so we loaned them ours.”