Interactive GIS map helps victims of Gatlinburg wildfires

Esri worked with Sevier County and Forestry officials in setting up quick way for evacuees to see whether their property was destroyed

Wildfires around Gatlinburg, Tenn. killed 14 people and destroyed or damaged more than 1,700 homes and businesses over the past two weeks. It's considered one of the deadliest wildfires ever in the U.S.

The tragedy prompted the creation of an interactive online map that allowed residents who had been evacuated to remotely pinpoint which structures were spared -- days before evacuations were lifted.

The map shows hundreds of red dots in Gatlinburg alone, an indication that a structure was destroyed. In the center of town, dozens of green dots - which indicate lesser damage - are nestled near red dots. Users can search for a property by an address or by clicking on a dot and then zooming in to see the original structure.

"We got feedback that people were very thankful, not only to have the mapping tool but the help with the processing of damage assessments," said Chris McIntosh, director of public safety industry solutions for Esri. His company has been offering GIS (Geographic Information System) tools and services for disasters globally since 2001. Last year, Esri and provided support in 200 disasters.

In this latest disaster, Esri worked with Sevier County, Tenn. and the Tennessee State Forestry Service in quickly setting up the interactive map. An Esri worker arrived in the fire zone a week ago, and then dozens of firefighters and other workers surveyed the damage using an app on their smartphones. That allowed them to create the interactive map within about a day. It became available online on Dec. 1 for evacuees and fire officials to consult.

"When you are displaced or have to leave a community, one of the worst things is the unknown," McIntosh said in an interview. "Being in the dark is the worst thing. We can help people know the good news or the bad."

Government public information officers were able to spread the word about property damage more quickly for anxious residents because of the map. "The Sevier County interactive map has been very helpful to many of those affected by this fire," said Jim Mackensen, public information officer for the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

In the Gatlinburg fires, Esri was able to quickly train workers with the Collector app, available in major app stores, to use on their personal Android, iOS and Windows Mobile devices. GPS satellites helped each worker find a precise location, and then classify it as destroyed, damaged or affected. In some disasters, crews are able to append photos or videos of a structure.

The fire was so severe that it burned addresses on buildings beyond recognition. Crews had to connect the geo data for a particular spot to the county's online historical parcel data to be able to verify an exact address. Complicating things: Internet service in Sevier County was down intermittently over the past two weeks, partly because cell towers were destroyed. With the Collector app, the data collected on smartphones could be stored until an internet connection was available.

The Sevier County interactive map is hosted by Esri in the cloud, which made it easier to handle the many simultaneous web requests. Esri competes with Google and other companies for some of the GIS tools it provides to emergency response organizations, but McIntosh said Esri also provides a complete array of services that help communities relocate residents and businesses. Some of the basic ingredients for creating an interactive map with the Esri ArcGIS Online product start at just $2,000, he said.

Fire officials are still trying to determine the exact cause of the wildfires, but have said they can be attributed to human activity. The fires spread so quickly that some residents said they didn't have time to properly evacuate.

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