08/15/2012 11:35 EDT | Updated 10/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Forest Fire App: Smartphone Could Help You Assess Wildfire Risk, Say BC Researchers

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General view of the fire in Torre de Macanes during a forest fire near Alicante, on August 13, 2012. One person was killed and three injured Sunday as firefighters battled wildfires across Spain, authorities said, the latest victims in a sweltering summer of forest blazes. AFP PHOTO/Pedro ARMESTRE (Photo credit should read PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/GettyImages)

VANCOUVER - When it comes to predicting and reducing the threat of wildfires, there's something the maps and satellite and aerial pictures that detail British Columbia's expansive forests don't show.

Below the forest canopy sits the so-called fuel for forest fires — the grass, branches, dead trees, needles and other materials that will burn if the forest ignites.

But it's difficult to assess the fire risk without knowing how much fuel, and what type, exists in a particular area — a problem researchers in Vancouver hope an experimental smartphone app could one day help solve.

University of British Columbia graduate student Colin Ferster is currently testing an app he designed that will let smartphone users — from landowners to hikers to local park officials — document the fuel risks while in the province's forests.

The app shows users pictures of various fuels and asks them to compare those pictures with their own observations. They'll also be asked to snap photos from their smartphones' camera.

The entire package is then sent back to Ferster, along with GPS data he can use to create detailed maps of potential fuel risks.

"We're normally using satellites and air photos to make maps of forests, and those are providing a really good picture from the top looking down, so we're getting the tree tops but we're not getting a big picture of what's happening at the ground level," explains Ferster.

"That's why measurements with smartphones could be a really useful source of information."

Ferster has been field testing the app this summer in the province's Okanagan region, which is among the areas of B.C. that face a perennial threat of forest fires.

He said volunteer testers have been able to use the app, currently written for the iPhone, to identify potential fire risks.

Ferster hopes his research will one day put it in the hands of the public, which he said will accomplish two things.

First, such an app could help improve existing data on fuel risks, allowing everyone from community foresters to provincial fire officials to better assess and mitigate forest fire threats.

"Fire managers need to decide where to use their resources, and that's why better fuel maps can be beneficial, to provide more information for those types of people to make effective decisions," he said.

Second, Ferster hopes the app would serve as a public engagement tool, teaching users to identify forest risks and take steps to reduce them, particularly for landowners.

"I think different users would use the app differently, depending on whether it's someone using it in their own backyard versus a park manager," he said.

"There's a homeowner who can maybe cut the grass, clear brush and branches, maybe hire an arborist to do some thinning. And then there are community foresters, so these maps could provide another sort of information for them to effectively consider these kinds of things at the community level."

Ferster notes the app is currently experimental and he can't predict when the technology might be available to the public.

B.C.'s wildfire seasons vary widely from year to year. Last year was one of the slowest on record, while the year before saw 331,000 hectares scorched by nearly 1,700 fires.

The most expensive season in the past decade was in 2009, when more than 3,000 fires cost the province more than $383 million to fight.

And B.C. isn't the only province or territory to deal with major forest fires.

In Ontario, for example, fires burn an average of 128,000 hectares of land each year.

Last year, 1,300 fires burned more than 630,000 hectares of land across the province. It marked the largest area burned in the past 50 years, costing that province $230 million — more than twice the yearly average.

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