Study: Using geographic information to analyze wildland firefighter situational awareness: Impacts of spatial resolution on visibility assessment

Wildland firefighters must be able to maintain situational awareness to ensure their safety. Crew members, including lookouts and crew building handlines, rely on visibility to assess risk and communicate changing conditions. Geographic information systems and remote sensing offer potential solutions for characterizing visibility using models incorporating terrain and vegetation height. Visibility can be assessed using viewshed algorithms, and while previous research has demonstrated the utility of these algorithms across multiple fields, their use in wildland firefighter safety has yet to be explored. The goals of this study were to develop an approach for assessing visibility at the handline level, quantify the effects of spatial resolution on a lidar-driven visibility analysis, and demonstrate a set of spatial metrics that can be used to inform handline safety. Comparisons were made between elevation models derived from airborne lidar at varying spatial resolutions and those derived from LANDFIRE, a US-wide 30 m product. Coarser resolution inputs overestimated visibility by as much as 223%, while the finest-scale resolution input was not practical due to extreme processing times. Canopy cover and slope had strong linear relationships with visibility, with R2 values of 0.806 and 0.718, respectively. Visibility analyses, when conducted at an appropriate spatial resolution, can provide useful information to inform situational awareness in a wildland fire context. Evaluating situational awareness at the handline level prior to engaging a fire may help firefighters evaluate potential safety risks and more effectively plan handlines.

(Co-authors: Mistick, K.A., Dennison, P.E., Campbell, M.J., Thompson, M.P.)

Read the study:

Fire, 5(5), 151. 2022