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SpatialNews Feature

* Los Alamos Fire
* FireNet

Viejas Fire Mapping Solutions

By: Tom Patterson , National Park Service
Date: Feb. 15, 2001

The Viejas wildland fire was the first incident in which the fire perimeter GPS data was collected and displayed in real-time on handheld Pocket PC's (Compaq Ipaq and Hewlett Packard Jornada) using the ESRI ArcPad mapping program.

The Viejas Fire, which burned 10, 353 acres in the Cleveland National Forest, CA, turned out to be a first in many respects. It was the first significant wildland fire of the year; started from careless smoking along I-8 during Santa Ana wind conditions at 4:24 a.m. on January 3rd. Numerous structures were destroyed and hundreds of residents were evacuated. The incident is also the first time that an on-going wildland fire was digitally mapped with Pocket PC’s (Compaq Ipaq and Hewlett Packard Jornada) using the ArcPad mapping software by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and a GPS receiver.

The system worked flawlessly and allowed GPS Technical Specialists (GPSP) the mobility to collect and display real-time fire perimeter data and document damage assessment information by flying daily helicopter recon flights and recording accurate geographic coordinates into the handheld computer. In recent years several methods and mapping software programs have been developed that provides GIS Technical Specialists (GISP) the tools to produce all those beautifully detailed briefing, incident action plan, rehab, transportation and fire progression maps that we now use routinely to record wildfire occurrence.

Prior to the Viejas fire, we carried a full-sized 10-lb. notebook computer, 2-lb Rockwell PLGR GPS receiver, cell phone, and all the extra cables, batteries, external antenna etc. in the helicopter or on the fireline in order to provide fire managers with the most up-to-date information needed to make sound tactical decisions. Even with the capability to instantly transmit data in near real-time anywhere in the world (see the February/March 2000 issue of Wildfire, pg. 23) the Tekmate computer carrier tended to restrict movement and you looked like a total fire geek!

The handheld computer can be used with all of the common GPS receivers by connecting the data cable from the GPS unit into the computer serial port. Total weight of a ComPaq Ipaq and a Garmin III plus GPS receiver is less than one pound and the entire GIS data collection platform will easily fit into a flightsuit pocket. Everyone who saw it used on the fire took an instant liking to it and remarked at the power in such a small package (and it looks cool!).


The Ipaq proved to meet the demanding requirements for prolonged fire perimeter mapping. . The internal lithium-ion battery will last for about 10-12 hours. The color display can be read in bright sunlight. Map data can be stored on the internal 32 MB RAM or by sliding the Ipaq into a PC card expansion pack. Additional storage such as Kingston’s 2 GB datapack hard drive and a wireless modem may be used for enhanced flexibility. A Teletype pcmcia card GPS receiver provides direct connectivity with the computer without the need for a cable.

The use of GIS/GPS technologies with handheld computers and the ability to transmit map data, digital images, movie files and other documents to the incident command post from the fireline is now an affordable alternative that will be as common as tactical applications of Class A foam in our fire management toolbox. GPS Specialists from the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S Geological Survey have developed a one-week training course that is taught at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). It will be offered again April 9-13.

[ Click Here To view A Map of the Viejas Fire Burn Area ]

Additional information: - An evaluation copy of Arcpad may be dowloaded from the ESRI website ( A 20-minute timeout will occur until the program is registered ( The topographic raster images used for background display were obtained from the ERM Tactical Mapping System program ( used to map the fire with a Toshiba notebook computer.

About the Author: Tom Patterson is the Fire Management Officer at Joshua Tree National Park, CA. Tom can be contacted at

Any reproduction, copying, or use of the material contained in this article without first contacting the author and SpatialNews is prohibited.

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