EROS’ Kurtis Nelson Deploys to California to Help Battle Woodward Fire

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In his regular job, EROS Scientist Kurtis Nelson manages post-fire mapping activities at EROS—the largest being Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity, and the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) support. But for 21 days this past August and September, he did something more.

color photo of thank you sign for firefighters in California

Residents living near Point Reyes National Seashore outside of Olema, Cali. posted numerous signs thanking firefighters and members of the Type 1 Incident Management Team for their work on the Woodward Fire in August and September of 2020.

(Public domain.)

Something that brought considerable peace of mind to the fire-weary residents of Northern California.

Motivated by a lifelong interest in fighting fires, Nelson volunteered this summer to help out as California burned, deploying to the Woodward Fire in the Point Reyes National Seashore near Olema, CA, northwest of San Francisco. It was an opportunity that came about because of USGS participation in the DOI’s All-Hazards response efforts organized through the Natural Hazards Mission Area.

Nelson spent most of his time in California with the Type 1 Incident Management Team working as a Public Information Officer—Trainee. His primary role was handling the technology side of virtual meetings conducted not only for incident management team members working on the Woodward Fire, but for the public, too.

The COVID pandemic had stymied their ability to stage multiple daily in-person meetings to discuss planning and operations, as well as to keep the public up to date. So, Nelson took part in filming the internal briefings and seeing that they were broadcast over Zoom and a private YouTube channel. He also was responsible for all the behind-the-scenes production of the public briefings, knitting together the various components of those meetings into a single video layout that could be packaged and pushed out to Facebook.Live, YouTube.Live, local media companies, and local television channels. He also made sure the briefings were recorded and made available through social media.

Bringing Insight to a Dangerous Situation

Each day, a different member of the team was brought to the public briefing to discuss his or her role and what was happening with the fire. One time, it might be an incident meteorologist. On another occasion, a fire behavior analyst, or an air operations group supervisor. With his own background in fire science, Nelson was also able to bring an understanding to what was going on in a way that resonated with people who hadn’t experienced a wildfire in the Point Reyes National Seashore in 30 years.

“By demonstrating the breadth of the team’s abilities, and showing the amount of information and consideration that went into making operational decisions on the fire, it really helped turn public opinion from skepticism and near hostility when the team first came in to admiration and appreciation that many of the long-time team members commented they had never seen before,” Nelson said.

color photo of cliff scorched after fire

The Woodward Fire burned through trees and vegetation on this cliff in the Point Reyes National Seashore in late summer 2020.

(Public domain.)

As the fire raged on, he and others on his team saw signs popping up along roadways and driveways around the command post thanking the firefighters and incident team for all the work they were doing. Even as some of the locals had to be evacuated, the public still went out of its way to express appreciation for the information being provided and transparency of the team, Nelson said.

“We talked to several of the evacuees, sometimes multiple times daily, and kept them up to date with where the fire was and what was going on, which gave them tremendous peace of mind and confidence,” he said.

In the end, no one died and no structures were lost to the Woodward Fire as far as they know, Nelson said. And while the fire was never really a direct danger to him or the team, there was at least one occasion when they weren’t sure if it was closing in on them or not.

Sky Turns Dark; Ash Begins to Fall

It was the day at their incident command post in the Point Reyes National Seashore’s visitors center when the sky turned dark, the smoke grew thicker, and ash began to fall. Suddenly, water-dropping helicopters started rising from the helibase behind the visitors center, choppering out to a nearby reservoir, filling up with water, then releasing it not far from where they were located.

“This went on a couple of hours, and some people were getting a little anxious,” Nelson recalled. Later that night, they learned at an operations meeting that the fire had made a run towards the center. Fortunately, containment lines were quickly established, fuel was burned out around the center, and they remained safe.

Toward the end of his time in California, Nelson was reassigned for three days to a BAER team, the very folks he helps back at EROS with the burn severity data he produces for recently burned areas. It was a boots-on-the-ground experience that enabled him to see how that data are actually used to assess fire impacts and make management decisions.

Nelson shadowed the team hydrologist, looking at the potential for erosion, flash flooding, debris flows, and general water issues in the burned areas. He also spent time on the fire line, hiking through burned areas and validating the remotely sensed burn severity data he had produced with observations on the ground.

Wildfire Knowledge, Experience Invaluable

Color photo of smoke from wildfire

The sun burns through smoke near the visitor center at Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California during the Woodward Fire in late summer 2020.

(Public domain.)

While the lessons learned in California were important to him, Nelson said it was clear that the wealth of knowledge and experience throughout the USGS and EROS that could be made available during wildfires is an incredibly valuable asset.

At the height of the wildfire season this year, there were more than 31,000 people deployed, he said. That number could have been much higher, he added, since hundreds to thousands of additional requests for assistance from various fire operations positions—as well as public information specialists, GIS and mapping experts, hydrologists, biologists, ecologists, and more—went unfilled.

 “Fighting large fires is so much more complex than a bunch of trucks and hoses,” Nelson said. “There is an awful lot of science that goes into understanding what the fire is going to do, how it will affect the landscape, where it might be beneficial versus detrimental, and what the operational options are. USGS scientists can play any number of roles within the fire organization.”

For Nelson, who took wildfire training as a high school student in northern Minnesota, worked with the local fire department in his hometown and with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources—even had a stint with a hand crew in Montana the summer after he was graduated from high school—the Woodward Fire experience was something special.

“I have a lot of interest in sharing my knowledge and experience to help with fire response, and I think it’s a good strategic capability for EROS,” he said. “Not only am I able to demonstrate the abilities that EROS and USGS staff in general can bring to the fire management organization, but it also brings a legitimacy to the EROS fire science program.

It would be nice to see more people from EROS get the opportunity to be involved with fire response and continue to build that capability for EROS and USGS, Nelson said, adding that hopefully, “my deployment helps blaze the trail to enable that.”