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Patrick Robinson (centre) parachutes into remote backcountry to fight forest fires. During a co-op work term with GeoBC he designed a new mapping app that will give the jumpers more information than ever before about the fire they are attacking, making their work more efficient and potentially safer.Russ Hepburn/UVic

As a firefighter parachuting into B.C. wildfire zones, Patrick Robinson wanted better mapping systems to give professionals like himself an edge in figuring out how to navigate the challenging terrain. So he invented one.

Mr. Robinson is a smoke jumper – essentially a firefighter who parachutes into remote areas inaccessible by ground and also out of helicopter range. For them, finding accurate maps is a significant challenge; while mapping is available for big fires, it can be limited for smoke jumpers who go into zones where wildfires have just started.

“You’re in an area that you’ve never been in before. It’s wilderness. There’s a fire going off. You’re trying to stop the fire. You’re trying to figure what’s around you,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot of access to maps.”

Mr. Robinson, a 27-year-old former University of Victoria geography student, worked on a solution during a co-op work term with GeoBC, which develops and manages mapping resources for the B.C. government. He adapted off-the-shelf technology for a system that refines the ability to bring mapping information on a mobile device into a fire zone, and updates the map to account for on-the-scene circumstances.

The system then passes the updated map information to other firefighters. Such information is vital for firefighters, Mr. Robinson says. The former tree planter, born and raised in Victoria, has been on the wildfire front lines for about six years – five of them as a smoke jumper.

The new technology is a step up from previously used hand-held GPS units with only basic maps that lacked the nuance of the satellite imagery available with the new technology Mr. Robinson has worked on.

Smoke jumping is specialized work. Only about 60 of the 1,700 BC Wildfire Service firefighters and support staff deployed this summer for the 2019 fire season are smoke jumpers, also known as “para attack fighters.” The smoke jumpers are based in Prince George.

Kyla Fraser, a fire information officer with the wildfire service, said smoke jumpers are recruited and then trained in house in Fort St. John over four to five weeks, including two to three weeks of practice jumps.

Places such as B.C. and Alberta have suffered through a number of devastating wildfire seasons in recent years, in some cases forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and destroying homes and other buildings. B.C. has so far had an average fire year, but the worst conditions usually come in July and August. Last year’s wildfires consumed a record 1.4 million hectares.

Mr. Robinson says he had been thinking about the idea for two years, and took an app intended for commercial surveying and applied it to emergency response use.

He began in firefighting as a member of a 20-member unit crew. Eventually, he saw a way into smoke jumping, a responsibility he considers the ultimate job.

“It’s a super engaging and challenging environment. We’re never not busy. We always have loads of things to do even if there’s not a fire to respond to," he said.

There’s packing parachutes, learning to sew, fixing gear and producing new gear, among other responsibilities. He has never been injured by jumping, but has suffered cuts and scrapes from the firefighting work.

Aaron Pawlick, manager of strategic initiatives encompassing research and innovation for BC Wildfire, said he had no updated data on how the use of Mr. Robinson’s technology is working out.

“The pilot is in its early days,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do our diligence on how this is going."

"We’re always looking for new ways to advance our app development field and what we can do from a data perspective.”

As for Mr. Robinson, he is working on a masters of science and forestry, and will, in future, be studying at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George – when not fighting wildfires.

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