As some of the largest fires in California’s history blazed in late summer, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection deployed a fleet of specially equipped firefighting aircraft that can steer or contain a fire’s perimeter to help fire crews on the ground.
Reuters took an in-depth look at the types of aircraft, from specially converted passenger jets to aircraft that can scoop water from a lake, plotted their movements and explained their specific roles.
The piece was shared widely on social media and received high readership traffic. We were even congratulated by a helicopter firm from the area for such an accurate and interesting depiction.
First, we needed to research the list of aircraft that were currently operating and compile their tail numbers. Using the tail numbers, we were able to download their flight path data. Each flight was a separate file so we had to clean and sort all of the data over the space of a month before selecting the days and times to focus on.
From there we were able to plot and map this data and with fire hotspots from NASA to tell the story of how the aircraft operate together.
We added beautifully drawn illustrations throughout the page to help with the explanation but also tie the piece together.
What was the hardest part of this project?
We studied hundreds of flight paths in order to figure out our final selection. From there, we still had to break down all of this information and display it in a cohesive and meaningful way. This was the greatest challenge.
What can others learn from this project?
There are often multiple facets to an ongoing story. After plotting and focusing on the fires themselves and the destruction they caused, we wanted to explore other interesting angles. This is an example of a follow up angle after already covering the main story. The availability of data also helped us tell this story in a much stronger way.