North Complex Fire: Drone Damage Assessment

North Complex Fire: Drone Damage Assessment

The North Complex Fire was part of thousands of wildfires that were sparked from a combination of warmer than usual temperatures, and a lightening storm that ripped through Northern California. The fires were geographically broken up as several different complexes, which required a large scale response from Federal, State and Local agencies to fight the millions of affected acres, and forced people to flee from their homes to escape the flames.

Paul Spaur, of the Spaur Group, in partnership with GeoAcuity, provided technical support to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, and an inter-agency task force of drone pilots that were organized Alameda Co. Sheriff’s Office. Over 20 pilots and mapping consultants set out the mission to rapidly assess the damage of one of the most heavily damaged areas: Berry Creek, near Oroville, California. Within 48 hours of arrival, the team was able to produce actionable visual intelligence of the hardest hit areas.

Large areas such as this are typically mapped with satellite or other aerial imagery, but because of the heavy smoke, drone damage assessment was required, because the drones can fly below the level of the smoke. This is not an easy task, as it requires permission from the FAA, Fire Agencies such as Cal Fire, and considerable ground / air coordination. Flying a drone during any emergency situation is illegal unless the proper permission and coordination is obtained.

Map graphics by GeoAcuity:

Interactive Video Maps.

In total, over 50 square miles of area were captured, despite difficult terrain and conditions. This information is used by the government, insurance, and later construction companies to help get people home, or to start the rebuilding process. Operating at this scale required well trained personnel and proper planning.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Drone Team, formed by Commander Tom Madigan, has been at the forefront of using drone technology. They work with local agencies such as The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, San Leandro Police Department, Stockton Police Department and many others, to train together and have a team of pilots trained in public safety applications. One of the guiding forces in this training is Dr. Greg Crutsinger (of GeoAcuity), who has worked as a drone based imaging and mapping consultant for many disasters, including the Ghost Ship Fire, Camp fire, and many more.

Small spot fires still burning while collecting imagery.

Drone technology has progressed at light speed over the past decade. The hardware, coupled with advancements in mapping technology such as ESRI SiteScan / Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Pix4D photogrammetry (3D mapping from images), and Survae video mapping, public safety teams have a lot of new tools with which to improve their response to disasters. Understanding how each of these technologies come together, and which ones to is no easy task. The technology is constantly changing, with new pieces of hardware and software available almost monthly monthly. Dr. Crutsinger assembled a team of seasoned field mapping experts: Cody Thomas, Mike Bonillas, and Paul Spaur to embed and assist the flight teams, relying on GeoAcuity for putting the mapped pieces together in easily digestible formats.

An operation base was selected at the Berry Creek Post Office, and each day the different teams were assigned to specific zones to capture imagery. The specific zones that were designated by Butte County leadership, which was critical to cover the area efficiently and thoroughly. Data management at this scale is key, each team would complete their assigned areas, and report back to have the data backed up and categorized, then get a new assignment. High speed satellite internet was provided by Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, which allowed for in-field data upload, followed by a final upload via CSU Chico’s Campus. This allowed for cloud processing of data as fast as possible. After the data was processed locally and online, the data was combined and put into a web format, which is easy to share.

This deployment proved that drones can be used to rapidly assess damage when the smoke blocks the view for planes and satellites. This is only possible with the proper planning, tools, and training. The Spaur Group offers training on drone operations, piloting, data collection and data processing and GeoAcuity offers turn-key disaster response solutions.

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