Mapmakers are often the first out of bed at a fire camp, gathering the information that will help set a day’s firefighting priorities.
They are among the first to rise at fire camp, up before 5 a.m. And working in shifts, they continue past midnight, perhaps until 2 a.m.
Without them, crews battling expansive wildfires would be lost — literally.
They are the mapmakers, though the term you are more likely to hear is Geographic Information Systems Specialist (GISS).
Greg Tudor, 50, of Olympia, is one of seven such specialists working on the Okanogan fire complex. That’s the most mapmakers Tudor has ever seen at a fire, and he’s been doing this since 2003, first as a state Department of Natural Resources employee and now as a private contractor.
But then, he’s never seen a fire quite like this one, the largest in state history, measured at more than 302,000 acres Friday — about 470 square miles. Another fire to the east, the North Star fire, has reached 300 square miles.
The mapmakers on the Okanogan fire are part of a 50-person incident-management team that also includes experts on fire strategy and fire behavior, as well as those who deal with the many needs of running a massive firefighting response.
“Everything it takes to put a small city together at a moment’s notice,” said fire information officer Bernie Pinieda.
As a mapmaker on wildfires, Tudor has seen his art go from producing hand-drawn maps on a wall to generating and sharing online fire depictions that crew bosses can load onto laptops or take with them on handheld devices. The maps show such details as fire perimeters, cleared fire lines, resupply points, threatened structures and more.
The process starts in the middle of the night, when a National Infrared Operations flight from Boise gathers details on the blaze’s shape, size and intensity.
Tudor said a single Leer jet, traveling at about 35,000 feet, covers fires across the entire western U.S., using infrared equipment that can see through smoke and darkness.
Although the plane can cover a vast area, priorities need to be set when many fires are burning simultaneously so that the largest and most dangerous fires are covered.
Tudor said the flight is typically made just once a day, during the hours the fire is least likely to be moving.
To that information, he adds layers of additional observations from the ground and from the air, from entities such as the Okanogan County Emergency Management, the Colville Confederate Tribes and the state Department of Natural Resources.
“The conditions are constantly changing,” he said. “It’s growing all the time, and so we are mapping moving objects.”
At the Okanogan fire, three principal versions of the map are made each day, to be available for briefings preceding each shift on the fire lines.
Maps that can be carried on handheld devices have been a blessing to crews caught in smoky terrain and looking for their way back to camp. “The smoke has been so thick there’s been times you couldn’t see across the street,” Tudor said.
Additional information on the size and scope of fires, especially useful to fire-behavior analysts, comes from a pair of NASA satellites 440 miles in space through the U.S. Forest Service’s Active Fire Mapping Program.
Collecting infrared fire observations is just one of the uses of the two satellites, Terra, launched in 1999, and Aqua, launched in 2002, which also provide information on conditions in the ocean, atmosphere, areas of vegetation and more, said Brad Quayle, a spokesman for the program.
Each of the two satellites, which circle the Earth from pole to pole, makes a daytime and a nighttime pass over the fire area, providing a total of four daily readings that can be compared to show fire movement and behavior, Quayle said.