2019-2020 FIRIS program mapped Initial attack (IA) fires in SoCal within 5 minutes of aircraft arrival and every 15 minutes until released. Courtney Aviation’s mapped with Tase 200 Gimbal by using geolocated photos in google earth this method enabled the quick creation of fire perimeters.

Small IAs were mapped quickly in 5 minutes. Many IAs were not small by the time we were dispatched and arrived. Sometimes 1000-2000 acres upon arrival, we did an initial map in 15 minutes, and every 15 thereafter.

On large IAs, different operators took multiple approaches. One the Saddle ridge fire at the request of the Fusion Center, the mapping plane created “map extensions” in-between whole fire maps every hour. Extensions were the most intense and threatening areas of a fast-moving wind-driven fire, rather than the backside that might already be turning black. Crew Resource Management (CRM) developed in the cockpit where the mapping operator would capture geo-referenced images on the first lap around the fire, and then turn gimbal operation over to the ATGS using a touch tablet.  The mapper would focus on producing a map, while the ATGS would watch the fire, position cameras for live stream viewers and target and target the next map extension. Upon sending the perimeter, the mapper would take back gimbal control from the ATGS who already had the gimbal pre-positioned on the area of interest.  A new set of geo-referenced images could be quickly captured in a minute, and the gimbal control was returned to the ATGS. The mapper would go heads-down to create small extension perimeters attached to the last hourly perimeter. Extensions of intense areas could then be sent out about every 5 minutes.

Other operators would use the same approach as a small fire and create entire fire perimeters every 15 minutes or less. This allowed the operator to keep greater situational awareness of the entire fire and be sure to capture all progression fire wide. This method was also extremely useful in allowing the ATGS to focus on other tasks when in the air attack role. The method also helped show how the fire was progressing on a consistent basis. Both operator techniques have their merits, no definite feedback was given from the agencies or fusion center as to the preferred method. A new camera system next year may not allow for operation from the ATGS seat and the rear mapping station.

Because teams realized the benefit of near-real-time perimeters, fire projection models, and grew confidence in the whole process,  they continued to request fire maps after the initial response period, all the way into later stages of the fire while securing the fireline. Cold fire mapping was good and welcome, but new and different.

Map accuracy and perimeter accuracy designators were defined for inclusion in the perimeter name:

Geo accuracy Fire accuracy
0 = none circle of area
1 = no correction Rough perimeter
2 = Correction attempt Closer perimeter
3 = Corrected Close detail
4 = Walked Walked
5 = Surveyed or Ortho Surveyed or Ortho

Geo-correcting images was an intense time-consuming effort that was not always needed on fast-moving fires because, by the time the perimeter was corrected, the fire had passed it.  Later, when mapping fires after IA, maps were created for fire mop-up activities. Correction was much more important because ground people might hike through rough terrain to search for a tiny spot. Most of the time there were few enough hotspots to Geo correct any photos with residual heat.

To improve accuracy a software stitching technique was developed to create highly accurate ortho-mosaic photo maps of the burned area. Resolving 14-bit LWIR allowed for the cold black of a fire to be mapped. However, this takes time, depending on fire size sometimes many hours after flying. Also, imagery needs to be strategically gathered in a nadir orientation to be stitched. This requires flying the plane in a grid type pattern over all of the fire.

Defining methods to accurately map cold-black at night, tiny heat spots to dig out and undistinguished dead perimeters (at night) was a new challenge. All of these are functions National Infrared Operations (NIROPS) does not do (Courtney is a NIROPS contractor).  Interacting directly with the incident team, these maps were created to their liking and highlighted a desire for mapping after IA, that an ISR aircraft can fulfill when not busy on higher priority incidents.

NIROPS style maps were requested once on the first major fire (Tenaja), and Courtney used our know-how as a NIROPS contractor to create and post these (ESRI SHP files and GeoPDFs) by the morning. After that NIROPS style maps were not requested as  teams were satisfied with live stream IR, near-real-time perimeters and projection models on WiFire. This request kept up our mappers late into the night as it is much more intensive than creating a fire perimeter polygon.

Later when mapping after IA, ortho-mosaic maps and polygons were sent directly to the team’s IC Situations leader, who the ATGS was talking to. During Courtney’s end of season closeout conversation with NIROPS, the manager noted that SoCal was one of the busier fireplaces this slow year, but they had very few SoCal requests/missions this year.

Most operations used pointable gimbal cameras. This allowed for mapping from the side (oblique). Being to the side was critically important on moonless nights when columns of intense fire could not be seen. Flying into a column must be avoided at all costs.

Nadir mapping cameras (the kind NIROPS use) were tried several times on non-IA fires.  Step-stare cameras from Overwatch and fix mounted Australian FireWatch were very accurate, easy, relatively inexpensive and produce automatic artificial intelligence (AI) polygons every minute but are not considered best because they take longer to fly grid lines (mow the lawn) and could lead a plane to fly over a column at night. Additionally, nadir cameras don’t produce oblique video required for live streaming. A gimbal camera also be locked down into nadir if desired.


Fast delivery of IA fire perimeters worked as intended. Success brought additional mapping requests after IA. Often time requests were made for mapping products outside the initial scope of IA fire perimeter polygons. These requests were accommodated by great lengths of work by the operators. Courtney Aviation enjoyed the challenges this brought and are eager to understand the needs of incident GIS / Management personnel.