Mention Earth Day, and DEQ’s Sarah Idczak thinks back to her days as an undergrad at Western Washington University.
“The environmental college hosted an Annual Earth Day Festival. There were live bands, great food and lots of dancing. It was a great chance to take a step back from all the environmental problems we were studying and celebrate the victories,” says Idczak. “It allowed us to take a breath and just celebrate this big, beautiful blue marble that we all get to call home.”
As Emergency Response GIS Coordinator, Idczak analyzes geospatial data that reveals patterns and relationships in the natural forces shaping the environment and affecting our communities. Data changes quickly and there are a variety of needs that Idczak’s GIS skills can fulfill during a crisis, as we learned during Oregon’s unprecedented wildfires in 2020.
Idczak recently joined Air, Land & Water for an interview. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell me about how you used your GIS skills for the wildfire response?
After the wildfires, each property owner had to submit a right of entry permit before any government-funded workers could go on their property to begin removing hazardous waste, ash, or debris. Many of the forms we received were incomplete, which meant we couldn’t confirm the right location for cleanup crews. On top of that, we were getting permits for eight different counties all at the same time. It was a massive area that needed to be cleaned up, and it’s faster for a crew to clean up five properties that are close together than five that are spread out. So the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s GIS team and I put our heads together and used GIS to create a map of tax lots where work could begin. Color-coding the tax lots by cleanup status made it easy to see progress on the map.
How did your GIS skills help in a specific situation, in general or in another way you’re proud of?
The team of people working on the wildfires was massive, even just considering the people working on the hazardous waste removal piece. Pretty much all of them needed access to data and maps, and there was just a ton of data that was relevant to the response and that was being collected, so data management and data sharing were key aspects of the work I did. The rest of the GIS unit and I were able to put everything into ArcGIS Online and make a bunch of interactive maps and apps for different purposes and share them with the people who needed access to them. Especially because we were doing so much remotely, ArcGIS Online really saved us.
What was the most challenging part or the most important take-away?
Early in a response, there’s a lot of pressure for everything to be done yesterday, and it can be difficult to stop for a minute and think about what, five months from now, you or whomever you hand the work off to will wish you had done at the outset. It can feel difficult to justify taking that time, but it’s important, because it can save a ton of time over the lifespan of the incident.
What do your skills mean for DEQ’s future and what the agency can do for Oregon?
DEQ has been using GIS for many years, and there are people across the agency finding innovative, GIS-based solutions to problems that Oregon faces. What I do is a natural continuation of the GIS work that others have done here at DEQ and elsewhere. The difference is that now Emergency Response has a dedicated full-time GIS position, and that expands our capacity to support incidents and plan for them. I’m only a year into this, and the vision I have for Emergency Response GIS is going to take a while to achieve. In a nutshell, more GIS capacity means that Oregon’s people and resources are better protected against environmental emergencies.
On a NOAA Coastal Management Fellowship in 2017, Idczak worked on DEQ’s coastal oil spill response plans. One year later she accepted a position with the agency as a ballast water inspector and emergency response duty officer role until moving to her current role in 2020.
Idczak earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Policy and Planning from Western Washington University and has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Washington.
–Jennifer K. Flynt, public affairs specialist