Colorado Most Destructive Wildfire Captured by GIS

July 11th, 2013

Residents across the western United States are no strangers to the yearly wildfire season. This year is no exception, with dozens of conflagrations erupting from California to Colorado's Front Range. An Arizona blaze that tragically killed 19 fire fighters in early July brought national attention to their unrelenting nature and devastating effects. Each year these fires threaten millions of lives with evacuations, poor air quality, as well as slowing commerce on major railway lines and highways. Wildfires also test the capabilities of local first responders as well as county and state officials responsible for protecting public safety during and after their wake.

In Colorado, officials have visually captured the most destructive wildfire using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, a proven tool to protect life and property. GIS is a combination of computer hardware and software used by skilled analysts to manipulate spatial data and solve complex geographic problems.

GIS employs data such as satellite imagery and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) information, to provide emergency managers and first responders with a unique perspective. This insight maximizes response efforts throughout the wildfire season. Commonly referred to as GIS, it has played a key role in western firefighting efforts for years and helps officials literally cut through the smoke to manage the fire response. Despite thick smoke in Colorado and Arizona, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was able capture the damage from this crisis, illustrating charred, barren lands while identifying those which remained untouched. This information not only shows the scope of the fire, but also highlights areas that are at an increased risk for flash floods in the coming months. Thus, GIS enables Colorado officials to recover from one disaster and prepare for a future one.

Numerous homes west of Denver have been evacuated in recent days as a wind-whipped fire, one of the most destructive in the state’s history, threatens its suburbs. The Lime Gulch Fire has grown to nearly 500 acres, although progress in containing it has been made in recent days (Moreno, 2013). Even after the Lime Gulch Fire is extinguished, there is still a long fire season ahead. Once again, emergency managers turn to GIS to track the perimeter of concurrent fires, query populations at risk, and identify evacuation routes for residents (Cova, Dennison, Kim & Moritz, 2005).

Even though a GIS does not actively extinguish the flames, it still plays a vital role in raising situational awareness. It also plays a significant role in identifying future risk for public safety officials. Finally, a GIS quickly documents damage in the wake of a disaster, which is key to preparing disaster declarations, accelerating insurance claims and recovering expenditures on the local, county and state level.


1: A NASA satellite captures the land scar (shown in dark green) from the wildfires.  This land scarring has left the terrain barren and prone to flash flooding when the rainy season arrives later in the year. See image here.

2: Field technicians plot the circumference of West Fork Fire using handheld GPS devices.  This data is fed back to field operations centers and plotted against critical infrastructure such as roads and hospitals. See image here.


1. Cova, T. J., Dennison, P. E., Kim, T. H., & Moritz, M. A. (2005). Setting Wildfire Evacuation Trigger Points Using Spread Modeling and GIS. Transactions in GIS,9(4), 603 – 617.

2. Moreno, I. (2013, June 19). Homes Evacuated as Wildfire Flares Near Denver – ABC News. – Breaking News, Latest News & Top Video News – ABC News. Retrieved June 27, 2013, from

3. Parsons, A., & Orlemann, A. (2002, July). Mapping post-wildfire burn severity using remote sensing and GIS. In 2002 ESRI International User Conference, 8–12 July 2002, San Diego, California.

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