Seeds of the Forest Observatory

Aug 25, 2020

by Christopher Anderson

It isn’t easy to build a forest monitoring system from scratch. But that’s what we set out to do when we designed the California Forest Observatory.

We began development in 2019 following the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons, which included both the largest and the deadliest modern wildfires in California. Like many others across the state, we sought to understand how technology could improve our understanding of wildfire hazard, exposure & risk to inform wildfire resilience planning. And we wanted to determine how we could best use our specific expertise—in satellite image analysis, ecological modeling & map design—to do so.

Lingering smoke near Mt. Shasta, California.

The motivation

After interviewing over 70 people in conservation, wildfire science, public policy & emergency services, we found an array of opportunities to contribute to advancing fire science in California. These are described in detail in the Forest Observatory Ethnography Synthesis, which we quote extensively below. But it’s worth highlighting three data- and design-driven opportunities we tried to address with the California Forest Observatory.

Design for many

There are so many people working on wildfire in California. You can get a sense for the diversity of voices and workflows from the Forest Observatory Reference Library: we highlight 38 different organizations or agencies involved in wildfire management, and 50 different tools and technologies they use. We knew that, in order to contribute to the community, we would have to provide data that would fit into existing workflows.

But even if we were to generate perfect data that precisely mapped the drivers of wildfire behavior, the data alone are but a small part of the solution. How you make the data available is at least as important as the data themselves.

And we heard early and often that the fragmented datasets available for wildfire modeling—fuels, weather, hazard, risk—are hard to access and harder to understand.

We need a killer planning tool that can become an Autodesk-like public visualization platform.

This all signaled that user-centric design had to be at the center of the development process for the Forest Observatory. And since we wanted our end users to include both wildfire experts and the general public, we had to cast a wide net to represent as many potential perspectives as possible. We talked to wildfire scientists, total novices, web designers, product designers, lawyers, UX designers, fashion designers. I even interviewed my parents. They’re doing well; thanks for asking.

We cracked open our books on cartography, information design, graphic design, on color theory. Our goal was to build a system that shows how the drivers of wildfire behavior—fuels, topography, weather & infrastructure—interact to drive hazard and exposure patterns statewide. We did the best we could to create a user-centric, intuitive visual system to monitor California’s forests and understand the risks to people and nature.

Centralize

The organizations involved in wildfire planning and response, and the data and tools used by these organizations, are fairly fragmented. There are few canonical datasets, and fewer canonical software tools, for mapping hazard, risk & exposure on large scales.

Where we’re advanced is in building common, operational pictures. But we’re behind on common operational data.

This fragmentation has some advantages. It often means that tools and datasets are designed to solve specific problems faced by an organization. And one key piece of feedback we received was to “avoid trying to be all things to all people.” But it also means the community is fairly siloed, and sharing resources across the community is a common challenge.

Let the data drive

We identified one canonical dataset that broke this pattern, which underpins almost all wildfire mapping technologies in the United States: the LANDFIRE fuels data.

LANDFIRE provides geospatial datasets that map patterns of vegetation fuels, disturbance & growth US-wide, based on a satellite basemap. They provide consensus-driven data, where regional experts from across the country come together and map out the current fuel landscape every few years. LANDFIRE is a valuable and trusted resource for the community because it was designed for wildfire modeling, retains expert credibility & and is available nation-wide. It’s great! But it also has some drawbacks.

Everyone’s got a map. What I can’t get is change over time.

Vegetation continuously grows, responds to stress & experiences disturbances, meaning fuels data need to be regularly updated. Updating these data nationally through a consensus-driven process takes a long time—it’s a big country!—and LANDFIRE is often playing catch-up.

The new 2020 LANDFIRE Re-map data are time-matched to fuel conditions in 2016, so the newest data are already four years out of date—which doesn’t include the footprints of recent fire seasons, nor the effects of the widespread tree mortality—and the last update before this was released in 2014.

Their expert-driven process is great for capturing local knowledge—especially when these include patterns that may not be detected by satellites. But it seems likely that they miss a few patterns, too. LANDFIRE’s satellite basemap was generated in 2001, and fuels updates are often the result of manual and model-driven changes; they’re not often detcted by direct satellite measurements. This will likely change, but regularly updated, high-resolution, measurement-based fuels data appear to be distant on the horizon.

We designed the California Forest Observatory to map the drivers of wildfire behavior in order to identify, monitor & predict environmental change statewide.

The product

Thanks to funding from the Moore Foundation, the California Forest Observatory is now live at forestobservatory.com. It’s release is a moment premature—the official launch is scheduled for mid-September—but we’ve worked so hard over the past 18 months to build a platform that provides our unique perspective on forests and wildfire. We couldn’t let this moment pass without trying to increase visibility into where and how the current wildfires were moving.

Through our partnership with Planet, we’re able to provide these data at unprecedented scales. Our regularly-updated, tree-level data is designed to be used by researchers, landowners & policymakers. The data are freely available for non-commercial use by scientists, government agencies, and nonprofits. If you’re interested in using Forest Observatory data for commercial use, contact us.

This is going to take public-private partnership and all hands on deck to get this done.

Though we’re a private organization, we’re not profit-driven. We founded Salo Sciences to be a truly independent mapping and monitoring organization. Independent of governments, of investors; our mission is to guide investments in natural climate solutions.

By providing the data for free we hope to support the development of data-driven land management strategies that increase wildfire resilience—for forests and communities—enabling people and nature to thrive.

Designed to share

We also see the California Forest Observatory as a conversation starter. It’s an opportunity to develop new public-private partnerships and expand access to information, helping bring more people from across the state to the table as we discuss the future of land management. The scope of the discussion is so large, and fundamentally about how we interact with natural resources, and we need as many voices contributing to the discussion as possible.

Critically, these voices need to represent the diversity of California’s communities. With access to technology representing one barrier to entry for many people (though far from the only barrier), we hope that making the data freely available to the public will enable more inclusive participation in public discussions of wildfire planning. We also hope to help bridge the skill gap in working with geospatial technologies that exists between the general public and experts in spatial analysis.

Check back soon for more updates, and follow us on Twitter @forestobs and LinkedIn @forestobservatory to get up-to-date information on the launch.

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