How you can help fight wildfires — from your couch

Brush fire in Arnhem Land, Australia

The Firecast Onsight app gets near real-time global data on fires in any geography, such as this brush fire in Arnhem Land, Australia. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Editor’s note: The Amazon is facing one of the worst fire seasons on record — which has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of trees that store carbon, cycle water and generate rainfall. The severity of this fire season owes to a recent El Niño event that reduced rain in the region, creating dry conditions even more severe than 2005 and 2010, the last years when the Amazon experienced drought and significant fires. Climate change may be increasing the frequency and intensity of El Niños, and deforestation and land degradation may be making the forest less resilient to drought and fire. Combined, these conditions are threatening to make wildfires more likely in parts of the tropics.

Human Nature sat down with Andrés Cano, manager of monitoring and modeling systems for Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science, to discuss a new app that uses satellite data to monitor forest fires in near real-time.

Question: Can you describe the new app and what its purpose is?

Answer: It’s called Firecast Onsight, a free application for Android devices. It was co-developed by Firecast, Conservation International’s forest monitoring system, and GeoVisual Analytics. Anyone with the app can get near real-time global data on fires in any geography in four languages directly to their phone. Crucially, if they see a fire near them, they can use the app to alert authorities on the ground who can then take care of the fire. By taking advantage of mobile internet, the app provides NGO and local government staff direct access to the location of new fires anywhere in the world, so they can inform rapid responders on the ground and local decision-makers as patterns emerge. This is key in remote areas where lack of equipment or technical capacity makes forest monitoring difficult.

Screenshot of Firecast Onsight app

Screenshot of Firecast Onsight app showing fire incident in West Papua, Indonesia on September 21, 2016 . Yellow markers indicate fires detected in last 8-24 hours. Grey markers represent detections older than 48 hours. (© 2016 GeoVisual Analytics)

Q: How does it work?

A: The app queries NASA’s servers every 30 minutes to update any new fire detections and displays the fire locations on a map. While the default setting is the map showing fires in your vicinity, you can also search in the map anywhere in the world to check out where the latest fires are. The fires are flagged by timestamps indicating the most recently detected ones. Anybody with an Android device (4.1 or higher) can log in as a guest to view the latest fire detections near their location. The app is available in Spanish, French, Indonesian and English.

Firecast Onsight app screenshot

Data from the field can be visualized in the dashboard and exported as table for further analysis. This app screenshot shows a Firecast Onsight field exercise outside Ambohitantely Special Reserve, Madagascar, to validate a forest disturbance alert. (© 2016 GeoVisual Analytics)

Q: How do experts use the app?

A: In addition to displaying fire data, Firecast Onsight helps experts collect pictures and field data on a private cloud-based dashboard for field work management. Access to the data collection tool and the dashboard is restricted and primarily used by natural resource managers and communities at local and regional levels for land management and conservation efforts.

We are currently in the process of coordinating testing the app with two institutions in the region of San Martin and Cordillera Azul National Park, Peru, to monitor illegal logging and other forest threats.

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Q: How will the app help stop forest fires in the Amazon or other vulnerable areas?

A: Firecast Onsight exposes any fire detected by NASA’s servers to the world (or at least those with the app). This transparency of information can be used to empower communities to self-manage natural resources; to encourage reporting of forest fires during peak fire conditions; and to reduce illegal forest activities that cause wildfires in or near protected areas.

Andrés Cano is the manager of monitoring and modeling systems for Conservation International’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer at Conservation International.

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