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Property owners can gauge wildfire exposure thanks to Duluth-based fire mapper

In discussing the fire raging in his district, St. Louis County Commissioner Paul McDonald noted the help provided by one of the county's geographic experts.

Wildfire map
A graphic illustration shows a screengrab of the map St. Louis County GIS principal Matt Goodman created to assist authorities and property owners during the Greenwood Fire. The multi-layered map showcases road closures, evacuation areas, and fire lines, allowing property owners to check the proximity of the fire to their properties. Shane Mercer / Forum News Service
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“It’s as smoky as it’s ever been here today," Paul McDonald said Tuesday, 10 days after the Greenwood Fire , the largest burning fire in Northeastern Minnesota, was detected.

The St. Louis County commissioner based in Ely has been busy checking in with tourism tradesfolk hit by the sudden closure of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“It was definitely warranted,” McDonald said of the decision to close the area to visitors. “But it’s going to hurt. They’re wondering how long this will go on.”

Matt Goodman.jpg
Matt Goodman, GIS principal for St. Louis County, created a map related to fires burning in Northeastern Minnesota last week that allows property owners to find their places in relation to fires and evacuation zones. The goal was to save authorities from having to address waves of phone calls about fire risks to property. Contributed / Matt Goodman

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The closure was extended another week Monday by the U.S. Forest Service. McDonald says he’s met with Forest Service officials to make sure communities whose fire departments are involved in the firefighting effort are left with coverage back home.

“You make sure not all of their equipment and not all of their personnel are out there,” McDonald said, adding that some departments in the southern part of the county continue to stand by to provide mutual aid if necessary.

“At least there’s no wind today — finally,” McDonald said. He noted the work of one St. Louis County employee providing a vital link in the firefighting effort: a modern-day mapper who put together a geographic information system specific to the fires in St. Louis, Cook and Lake counties.

“It took me a couple of days,” St. Louis County GIS principal Matt Goodman said. “I had some nights in the office that were rather late.”

In the earliest days of the fire, authorities from across jurisdictions were inundated with property owners trying to learn information about the fire and its proximity to their cabins and other dwellings.

Goodman set about creating a layered map that shows fire lines, evacuation zones, closed roads and allows users to plug in their addresses to see where their properties are in relation to the ongoing wildfire.

“It’s mainly a service to take some of the pressure off of public information officers working the fire who were inundated with inquiries from property owners,” Goodman said. “This was a way to help the citizens and to head off a lot of questions by pushing the information out more proactively.”

Goodman’s map launched Aug. 18, and received more than 26,000 views in less than a week of activation.

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“It’s really assisted all of the agencies and partners we’ve been working with,” McDonald said. “It’s been tremendous in being able to do things more quickly through the help of Matt.”

Paul McDonald
Paul McDonald

Lake County Emergency Manager Matt Pollmann agreed, calling it "handy," and heavily used.

"Overall, the product has helped immensely," Pollmann said in an email.

For his part, Goodman said it’s not a one-man show.

“There’s a lot of other smart GIS staff, and I’ve got a good support system here at St. Louis County,” he said.

The map updates when the Forest Service reports fire changes, and Goodman also updates shifts in the evacuation zones. When he's not mapping fires, he's pinning the location of 911 calls in the service of responders.

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“The vast majority of my work comes in support of 911 communication," Goodman said, "and then whenever there's an emergency management incident."

To visit the Greenwood Fire GIS map, go to bit.ly/3BpI8VB .

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