The Northern Rockies Training Center’s Tree Hazard Identification Simulation


The purpose of the Tree Hazard Identification Simulation—known as “THIS”—is to practice hazard recognition in relation to saw operations with less exposure to actual hazards during training.

It is a tool that may allow you to retain some “slides”, increase your margin, or just flat out practice in an environment that is “safe to fail”.

By Matt Gibson, Northern Rockies Training Center,


This blog post might be a little different. Usually these blogs are focused, like Travis Dotson on “our cultural shortcomings” or “pointing out fire service blind spots” or highlighting “self-induced growth” (Two More Chains, Spring 2019, “All The Good”, p.2).

Keeping the excellent reading and thought sharing of this blog in mind, I’m mostly going to focus on a smaller idea that has stemmed from many of the concepts in the various articles and blog posts from the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, as well as from the more intimate discussions with crews and individual firefighters.

The idea is “small” because I don’t have THE answer to your national conversations about risk, honoring the fallen, or the slow and steady change in wildland fire culture. Yet a group of us have tried to incorporate ideas of how to apply some of these thoughts and concepts into a training platform from start to finish.

Before I go any further, maybe I WILL point out a potential “cultural shortcoming” after all. I’m about to talk about a “computer simulation” related to saws and cutting. Be prepared.

It wasn’t that long ago in my career when, as a hotshot, I asked a question about bringing a laptop on fire assignments. The question I was asked next (and no, not by my crew) was: “What are you going to do, strap it on the end of a stick and use it as a flapper?”

Only a few years prior to that, a fascinating report was published, the “Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study”, also known in shorthand as the “TriData Study”. In my opinion, this report gave voice to concerns and clarity of purpose in a case for change and continuous improvement.

Even prior to becoming a Training Specialist, I paid extra attention to the many pages in the report devoted to training. Simulation-based training, specifically computer simulations, are promoted many times in this report. “Virtual Reality” is also mentioned.

This Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study report was released in October 1996. Here’s a few relevant quotes to where I’m headed with all of this:

“The wildland culture is dynamic and powerful. It is a culture which recognizes the importance of safety while not always recognizing how best to accomplish it. It is a culture of dedicated individuals working together often against overwhelming odds. It is a culture with long traditions but one which with effort recognizes the need for change and supports that change.” –Phase I (p. 196)

“Implementation Strategy 5 – Develop a ‘catalog’ of visual indicators or cues of situational change. As part of recognition-primed decisions, one needs help with the ‘recognition’ of different situations. The key point is learning to recognize different kinds of real world cues or indicators of situational change, such as the appearance of cumulus clouds, a drop in humidity, or an apparent shift in the direction the fire is moving. To make tactical decisions under stress, the individuals must be trained and/or experienced in being able to recognize and assess what is actually taking place (situation assessment). This involves training the individuals to first make the initial determination of ‘what’s going on here’.” –Phase III (p. 5-55)

The recent 2004-2019 Tree Felling Accident Analysis seems like it lends weight to a similar “catalog” of visual indicators or cues for tree hazards. Please join me in finding out if computers can help us a little more than when used as flappers—by reading on.


We would like to formally introduce the Tree Hazard Identification Simulation—conveniently known as “THIS”. THIS is designed with Virtual Reality (VR) as the primary platform and delivery tool.

matt gibson photo2

When you log into the Wildland Fire Learning Portal and search for “THIS” under the “Find Courses” tab, this is the trail sign in the home scene that welcomes you. While a user could probably complete a given scene using a flat monitor or their mobile device screen, it is highly recommended that you use your phone or other headset in VR mode.

THIS represents a collaborative effort by: the Northern Rockies Training Center; the National Technology and Development Program (Missoula); Rocky Mountain Research Station; the U.S. Forest Service Saw Technical Advisory Group; and the Northern Rockies Interagency Hotshot Crews.


The purpose of THIS is to practice hazard recognition in relation to saw operations with less exposure to actual hazards during training.

THIS is a focused simulation, yet we hope it applies some of the current methodology and thoughts elaborated on in your national discussions. It is a tool that may allow you to retain some “slides”, increase your margin, or just flat out practice in an environment that is “safe to fail”.


The Tree Hazard Identification Simulation is considered a basic use of VR.

Each simulation “scene” is comprised of four or more 360-degree spherical photos. The photos are taken at cardinal directions from the hazard tree—and later processed or “stitched” if needed.

Once we process the photos and host the draft scene, we run two or more Subject Matter Experts through the scene. The SME group is comprised of volunteer/interested C-Faller, C-Evaluator (U.S. Forest Service) or FAL1 (National Wildfire Coordinating Group [NWCG]) qualified sawyers who are experienced in cutting the tree species in the photo. Their job is to verbalize everything they see that could be a hazard and provide descriptive reasons for why they think it’s a hazard. As they verbalize, the discussion is captured in notes and used to develop the final “Answer Key” graphics for the scene.

The result is a library of scenes for you to view, accessed from the trail sign in the home scene (see image above). While a user could probably complete a given scene using a flat monitor or their mobile device screen, it is highly recommended that you use your phone or other headset in VR mode. VR mode puts you “in” the scene, “standing” in the center of each 360-degree photo. In this way, where you turn your head and look is exactly what you’d see if you’d actually been at the tree in real life.

The basics of “playing” the simulation is to spend as much time as you need in each of the four photos in a scene, and—when ready—compare your answers to the “Hazard Key”.

The library currently has four scenes, all in the Northern Rockies. However, the system is built to house potentially hundreds of scenes in the future, from across all of this country’s Geographic Areas. Wouldn’t it be nice to do a little practice BEFORE leaving for that assignment in Florida, where trees seem to rot from the outside-in?


As I previously pointed out, the simulation is designed to be utilized in VR mode. It has been purposefully built and hosted so you can use it anywhere you’ve got a data connection with the internet and your phone. On that note, you may want to pick up Google Cardboard or any other similar headset device that fits your specific phone if you like what you see initially. A headset will make your simulation experience that much better, and far more immersive.

Please keep in mind that delivering THIS via the internet means data transfer. You may prefer to connect your phone to WiFi before visiting even the home scene. We do try to design each scene with the idea that the user may be on cell data. On average, one 360-degree photo for a scene is around 4 MB (for a total of 16 MB just for tree pics), and up to 20 MB (for a total of 80 MB) in our Ambrose Saddle scene where we were testing a higher resolution camera. The point of this information is to make good decisions with your data!

If you have access to a higher-end VR system like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, fire it up, use Firefox to go to the URL (see below) and click on the VR button to begin! We’ve also tested it in an Oculus Go headset with WiFi, and it works great natively in that browser.

As with all web-based things, permanence is elusive. THIS is also a proof of concept system. Therefore, it may move to a more permanent or different URL in the future. We’ll make sure to redirect if that happens, and all of that assumes you find THIS useful in the first place!


There are still some refinements to be made to the simulation system. We’d love to refine exactly how a few of the graphics are displayed, make it easier for someone to try to build their own scene with a little code, and cosmetically make THIS’ home scene a little more appealing. Most importantly, we’d like to capture pretty much every relevant tree species and cutting condition/hazard we can possibly get by increasing the library size!

Some other potential ideas down the road might be to make the hazard identification more interactive and/or crowd-sourced, or even have a multi-player scene where you could look at a tree with a qualified sawyer from a given Geographic Area!

Get Going

Enjoy the simulation. Think about what’s possible from here. And don’t forget to post some feedback or send us a note so we can make sure THIS is useful for you! Use the link or QR code (below) to get directly to the course in the Wildland Fire Learning Portal, or log-in and search for “THIS” under the “Find Courses” tab.

To borrow Travis’ phrase: Geek on, Toolswingers.


matt gibson photo3


One thought on “The Northern Rockies Training Center’s Tree Hazard Identification Simulation

  1. I’ve been through a demo of this and it felt very real. I applaud the efforts of the Northern Rockies Training Center for using innovative methods to teach a fairly tricky subject. These types of technological prototypes are critical to increase capacity to safely manage wildfires.

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