Firing up a new social network

Firing up a new social network

An interactive forest fire-mapping website collects data through personal experience
May 4, 2011
Screen shot of the Okanagan fire-mapping project
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Screen shot of the Okanagan fire-mapping project website with a burn site map and article on the August 16, 2003, forest fire.
Jon Corbett, the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus

The summer of 2003 was as hot and dry in Kelowna, B.C., as anyone could remember. On Aug. 16, lightning struck, sparking a forest fire in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park that quickly blazed out of control. The Kelowna Fire Department, more familiar with fighting house fires, suddenly faced an inferno that was engulfing entire neighbourhoods. Roughly 1,000 firefighters came from all over British Columbia to battle the fire, along with 1,400 members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Upwards of 30,000 people had to be evacuated, and 238 homes burned to the ground. When it was all over weeks later, the fire had ravaged more than 25,000 hectares.

Called the firestorm of the century, the blaze scarred the community physically and emotionally. People wanted to understand what had happened. While news outlets broadcast sound bites and updates, there was no way to comprehend the full impact of the fire or to study its effects on the land or its victims. Witnesses posted photos on websites, but not much data. Mapping the fire offered only an abstract, two-dimensional schematic of what had happened.

In late 2009, fourth-year students Samantha Brennan and Aidan Whiteley, at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC), faced a similar challenge. Enrolled in geographer Jon Corbett’s cartography and society course, they were brainstorming ideas for an end-of-term mapping project.

“We wanted to visualize burn areas for forest fires,” says Brennan, now a master’s student in Corbett’s lab in the Community Culture and Global Studies unit. “But as we got into the technology, we realized how much we could add to the literature.” Corbett and his students wanted to determine the impact of forest fires on humans and how that information could be incorporated into a map.

While decades’ worth of B.C. forest fire data are available through the Integrated Land Management Bureau, says Corbett, “that information is presented in a way that’s totally inaccessible to the public. There’s no single place where people can go to understand the extent, duration and chronology of fires in the Okanagan Valley.”

Corbett and his students began developing an interactive tool that Okanagan residents could use to combine data on burn areas with human experiences related to specific forest fires. Ideally, the tool would even share real-time information about live fires through home videos, personal anecdotes, statistics and timelines. Brennan and Whiteley went on to write a paper on the possibilities of participatory mapping of forest fires in the Okanagan, which earned an award from the Western Division of the Canadian Association of Geographers in March 2010.

The Okanagan fire-mapping team at UBC includes
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The Okanagan fire-mapping team at UBC includes assistant professor of geography Jon Corbett (at left) and students Aidan Whiteley and Samantha Brennan.
Alumni and University Relations, The University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus

That class project became the nucleus of the Okanagan fire-mapping project, which weds various data on specific fires into one map to build and share community knowledge about forest fires in the Okanagan, while developing the possibilities of interactive community-based mapping projects. It has been aptly dubbed the “Facebook for forest fires.”

To create it, web programmer Nick Blackwell, at UBC Okanagan’s Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice, developed the Geolive mapping application interface, a JavaScript program that sits on top of the Google Maps API. Geolive layers photos, videos and statistics about a fire over a standard map of the Okanagan. When a user positions the cursor over a crimson-coloured burn site, a pop-up window shows when a particular fire occurred, how big it was and sometimes even what it looked like (if a local resident has uploaded video). A timeline across the bottom of the screen allows the user to scroll through almost 30 years of data.

“Social networking is a whole other side to the project,” says Corbett. “Not only does it democratize information by making it available through a map, but we’re also creating a space where people can share ideas and experiences around fires.”

Corbett started his career working with indigenous groups in Borneo, helping them use mapping tools to negotiate land claims. He went on to develop similar projects in Indonesia and Australia before coming to Canada in 2004 to work with aboriginal groups in British Columbia. Each of his projects married the quantitative benefits of cartography with the qualitative aspects of storytelling. The Okanagan fire-mapping project offers the opportunity to present a range of information, from firefighters recounting their rescues to images of people watching the flames from the lake.

Currently in the proof-of-concept stage, as Corbett and his team finesse the functionality of the site, the project has the potential to act as a safety tool by displaying ever-shifting evacuation routes in real time. It also has potential educational value. Corbett has discussed the possibility of installing a workstation in the Kelowna Fire Museum and Education Centre so that visitors could add their own fire data.

Corbett hopes to release the project results by the end of 2011. Until then, there are many forest fire stories to gather. “Fire is an important part of the psyche of the Okanagan,” says Brennan. “There are a million stories to tell.”