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Screen grab from http://firehistory.ok.ubc.ca/, a site earmarked to allow users to post information about forest fires in British Columbia. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)
Screen grab from http://firehistory.ok.ubc.ca/, a site earmarked to allow users to post information about forest fires in British Columbia. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)


The Facebook of forest fires Add to ...

Geography professor Jon Corbett only has to gaze to the horizon in Kelowna to see the eerie effect of the forest fires burning in the region.

"When you go outside, there's an orange halo in the sky and this strange glow," said Prof. Corbett, who teaches at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia. "It's coming from Kamloops, an hour to the north. In the last few days, it has been really smoky here in the Okanagan."

Seeing that orange halo is part of Prof. Corbett's forest-fire experience, but the veteran map expert is interested in the experience of thousands of other residents of the region, so he and two students have come up with a kind of Facebook for forest fires.

The so-called fire-mapping network for the Okanagan is in its pilot stages, but promises to allow registered individuals to post stories, personal videos and photos.

The site revolves around a specialized application that sits on top of a Google map of the Okanagan, dotted with icons covering the various fires. Prof. Corbett has travelled as far as Indonesia, Australia, Mali, Sudan and Kenya over a 20-year academic career that includes research on how maps can address environmental, social and cultural issues. He is currently an assistant professor of community, cultural and global studies at UBC.

Prof. Corbett and students Aidan Whiteley and Samantha Brennan have stocked the site - created with $24,000 a year in federal centres of excellence funding - with official data on fires back to 1984, creating a kind of history on the subject.

"Fire is an important part of the psyche of people in the Okanagan," Prof. Corbett said. "Almost every year, there's an extremely significant fire event that has impact."

Often the impact garners national attention. Last year, forest fires forced the evacuation of 10,000 people in the Kelowna area; in 2003, 45,000 were forced out of their homes - more than 200 of which were destroyed - due to fires in the region.

As of this Tuesday, 400 wildfires were burning throughout British Columbia. And while there have been accounts of individual experiences posted to various forms of social media, Prof. Corbett sees a gap the site can fill.

"There's no single, one-stop shop on the Internet, which allows [people]to understand the scope, scale or chronology of fires that have occurred in the Okanagan," he said. "In regard to the Facebook revolution, we offer different tools. The map provides spatial context. The timeline provides a chronology of the fire events across time. It gives a different understanding to the fire than something that's purely text."

As more and more people post, Prof. Corbett notes that the site could eventually end up providing real-time intelligence to firefighters, with members of the public noting lightning strikes or the movement of blazes.

The concept has drawn praise from Canadian geographers. Prof. Corbett's students were honoured by the western division of the Canadian Association of Geographers for a paper they presented at a March conference in Edmonton, outlining the project.

At this point, the site is in a basic stage - what Prof. Corbett calls a "proof of concept" standing that can be seen at http://firehistory.ok.ubc.ca - but he hopes to ramp things up in coming months, creating a lively online community. That situation leaves him feeling a little regretful.

"With these fires occurring now," he said, "there's a stab of guilt because I wish this site was more fully developed so it could have more use for the public affected by these fires, and the firefighters."

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