Start Tracking Wildfires Before Things Get Hot

August 12, 2020

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Professional firefighters use sophisticated database tools that can help reporters cover the wildfire story better. Above, a data map run by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Image: InciWeb. Click to enlarge.

Reporter’s Toolbox: Start Tracking Wildfires Before Things Get Hot

By Joseph A. Davis

As the wildfire “season” develops past deep summer, the fires may come so fast and thick that tracking them will be difficult. It’s a good time to remember — and prepare — some basic data tools that can help you stay ahead of the smoke and fire.

In getting ready, it’s helpful to know that journalists aren’t the only ones trying to keep up. Firefighting professionals have developed tools using the best data they have. Here are some sources you should bookmark for ready use. 



A pretty good, up-to-date overview of wildfire (and other) incidents nationwide can be found on the interagency site InciWeb. It is run by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which consists of the expected agencies, primarily federal land or emergency management agencies. 

The advantage of the InciWeb system is that it is designed for public as well as professional use. Fires are displayed in two formats: One is map-based and the other is a classic database table.

Among the strengths of this database: It is updated very frequently and states explicitly when the displayed data was last updated. It includes small fires, as well as large ones. Each datapoint links to a larger entry that describes the fire and its history in lay language, and gives agency contact information for those seeking further updates.


National Interagency Fire Center

The NIFC is the real-time operational hub of most wildfire-fighting efforts, with the possible exception of some state and local responses. One of its handiest information products is the Incident Management Situation Report, which comes out every morning in season. It is not just a data table, but an overview that points to the worst developing incidents and summarizes the resources (e.g., firefighters, airplanes) committed to fighting them. It gives a clear idea of progress being made on each fire, and which are important as threats to life and property. It also gives evacuation status. One other thing the NIFC does that is valuable for journalists is that it gives summary year-to-date cumulative fire statistics, which help put a particular fire or season in context.


Cal Fire and state agencies

Very often the newsiest fires (and the most awful ones) are in California — if only because people have built houses in fire-prone areas. California has its own super-sized agency, called Cal Fire. Cal Fire has its own online incident data display map. If you are only interested in California incidents, it may be a better choice. Other wildfire-prone states — such as Idaho — have their own incident data maps. Depending on where you are, you may want to check in ahead of time with the state or tribal agency responsible for fighting wildfires in your area. One starting point is this state foresters contact list. Some tribes, especially those with more land, may maintain their own firefighting agencies or crews, though these often act in concert with state and federal agencies. To learn more, contact your local tribes, visit the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Intertribal Timber Council.


Other kinds of data

Firefighters know there is more to an incident than acres burned and percent contained. They care most about what they are up against in fighting the blaze. Often, there is data for that.

For instance, slope, elevation and fuel (vegetation type and condition) are things that matter a lot on burning land. The U.S. Geological Survey has a dataset called LANDFIRE that tries to catalogue and map these factors.


Weather, too, is a key to reading and responding 

to wildfires. Yes, you can include climate 

and climate change in that statement.


Weather, too, is a key to reading and responding to wildfires. Yes, you can include climate and climate change in that statement (see our TipSheet, “With Wildfire, When Is Climate Change the Spark?”). 

The National Weather Service, and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, offer key data products that help assess fire weather. The NWS has a Fire Weather page

You’d also be wise to keep a “weather” eye on the interagency U.S. Drought Monitor, which maps drought conditions (see our Toolbox, “No Drought of Data, As Climate Dries U.S.”)


A note or two for the geeks

Complex firefighting operations communicate by radio and the web of radio communications is way too complex to describe here. But we are aware that some reporters have scanners. These can help reporters follow the action. 

Technically, many of the frequencies firefighters use are kind of secret — at least they are FOIA-exempt and classified “sensitive” (whatever that means). So if we told you what they are, we would probably have to turn you in to the feds. Good thing the radio industry will tell you, so we don’t have to.

But here’s the deal. Respect the tough and risky job firefighters do by not interfering. Do not broadcast on these frequencies. Leave them for firefighters. Just listen. 

And one more bit of advice: As much as you love that new drone your newsroom just bought, don’t fly it in a fire operations area.

For more, see our new “Issue: Wildfire” resource page, which includes wildfire headlines from EJToday and more wildfire stories from SEJournal, among them:

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 30. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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