Harnessing the Chaotic: Using the Participatory Geoweb to Make Sense of Forest Fires

Harnessing the Chaotic: Using the Participatory Geoweb to Make Sense of Forest Fires

Jon M. Corbett, Samantha Brennan, Aidan Whitely
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7033-2.ch044
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Communities in the Okanagan Valley, Canada are increasingly under threat from forest fires due to climate change and expanding urban development into fire interface zones. The effects of forest fires are not always quantifiable ‘hard' impacts. The fluid and chaotic ‘soft' impacts can have a profound effect on the collective consciousness of the people living close to the fires. To make sense of these impacts and understand where and when these forest fires have taken place, the authors have developed and implemented a Geoweb tool to support citizen-to-citizen dialogue and tell the stories of these impacts. This article will explore the interlinked ‘chaos' that exists between forest fires, GIS and volunteered geographic information, using a Geoweb focused case study from the Okanagan Valley, and argue that the Geoweb offers an unprecedented opportunity for citizen-citizen interaction and combines many types of dissimilar and unstructured data into a unified whole.
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While pockets of stability appear, chaos is integral in every facet of the natural and human environment, be it the weather (Lorenz, 1993; Palmer, 1993), ecology (Worster, 1994; Hastings et al, 1993; Rai and Schaffer, 2001) or human system (Loye and Eisler, 1987). The difficulty in predicting natural forces, including fire, is influenced by this inherent chaos. Although certain elements increase the probability of forest fires (drought conditions, densely forested areas, hot weather, and so on), predicting with exactitude where and when fires will appear is as uncertain as guessing where lightning will strike or human carelessness will next occur. People continue to be surprised by nature as it acts in ways that defy weather models or resist prediction. But in many ways, humans themselves are as unpredictable as the forces of nature, making the human influence on forest fires equally difficult to calculate. When citizens interact with each other the potential for chaotic behavior increases. The intersection of human and ecological chaos is exemplified during natural disasters. While predictive modeling may be able to forecast the outcome in a controlled environment, the impact on the ground depends upon a multitude of unpredictable factors occurring at the interface of the environment and people (daily conditions, preparedness, time of day, and so on). During disasters such as forest fires there are quantifiable ‘hard’ impacts—lost resources, burnt homes and associated financial costs—but there are also qualitative ‘soft’ impacts, psychological, social and familial amongst others, that can have a profound effect on the collective consciousness as well as long term livelihoods of those impacted. The ‘soft’ impacts are chaotic precisely because of their embedded complexity within the human psyche and the factors that influence our decision-making processes.

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