© copyright 2003 Michael P. Hamilton, Ph.D.




July 1, 1996:

Sitting safely on top of the giant boulders near Black Mountain,

I rotated the trackball of my laptop computer to electronically move an

imaginary mountain range. Suddenly the outline of computer generated

peaks, ridge lines and valleys began to resemble the very same panorama

I was experiencing from my mountain top lookout, with a single

significant exception, the real landscape I was viewing was on fire!

downtown Idyllwild on the day the town was evacuated


Earlier today I packed up my computers and family

photographs and locked the doors of my home in Idyllwild to

head for the James Reserve. I know I was supposed to leave the Hill,

most of you did, but I had much work to do to prepare the Reserve

facilities for the chance that the Bee fire might be heading that way.

Upon arrival the first order of business was to set up the computers

and install the Forest Stewardship Database. Years in the making, this

computerized geographic library of the entire San Jacinto Mountains

contained detailed maps of natural vegetation, fuel types, topography,

wind movements, and land uses. Best of all, it gives us the means to understand

the spread of fire under different weather conditions.


fireline approaching Pine Cove


After installing files into my portable Powerbook computer,

and entering the most recent Forest Service fire perimeter data

that Pat Boss had provided on my way out of town, I hiked up to

the highest point near the Reserve where I could gain a vantage

point of the fire. With binoculars I could clearly watch ground level

firefighters perched along the slopes of Indian Mountain. Flames

were visible to me along the northwest ridge line of Indian Mountain,

and one air tanker after another was bombarding the wild fire with the

bright pink fire retardant. The pilots were incredible in their mastery

of the art of dropping their load of retardant precisely upon the

vegetation that was just beginning to burn. From where I was sitting I

could estimate that the line of fire was less than two miles away

and burning in this direction!


bombers slinging fire retardant


Activating the Forest Stewardship Database software, I queried the

topographic map index for the portion containing Indian Mountain.

Viewable with a three dimensional perspective, I interactively twisted

and zoomed into the colorful shaded relief map until the computer

display approximated the same view I could see through my binoculars.

Over the years my students and I have constructed dozens of computerized

maps after carefully studying satellite and aerial images, maps that can be

precisely superimposed upon the realistic 3-D model. I called up a map of

historic fire boundaries which superimposed itself onto the digital view

of Indian Mountain. The fire line that I now watched burning in the northward

direction was attempting to ignite vegetation that had last

burned in the 1974 Soboba Fire.


helicopter water tanker over a smokey sunset


My "fire-scope" showed that the flames were moving towards

a moist drainage, and it would have to burn against the prevailing

wind to accelerate. Another digital map portraying overall fire

hazard severity suggested that the fire would dramatically

diminish in rate of spread and intensity as it attempts to consume

the vegetation between there and here.


The real danger, of course, was with the south and west moving flanks

of the fire. It was apparent that the fire was burning rapidly into the

North Fork drainage and could leap across the canyon to make a run

up towards Logan Creek and the northwest side of Pine Cove.

By merging fire hazard maps and property boundaries, I identified

numerous critical points where the fire line could threaten homes.


fire hazard data layer for a section of Pine Cove. with darker colors

indicating higher levels of flammable fuels


Knowledge is said to be power, but what is the power of knowing

what might happen, yet not be able to do a thing about it.

Fortunately the fate of our mountain communities was in the very

capable hands of expert fire fighters. That night, the fire that was threatening

the James Reserve was put out, and the remaining fires moved closer and

closer to Pine Cove and Idyllwild Arts.


What happened next, well, that is already old news!

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