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Former firefighter teams up with web developer to create B.C. wildfire app

Creators of a mobile app that tracks wildfires say they have been paying hundreds of dollars each month to keep the app running.
Creators of a mobile app that tracks wildfires say they have been paying hundreds of dollars each month to keep the app running. Mike Biden

Former firefighter Aaron Kilback says his friends in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley used to ask him for updates on campfire bans and active wildfires, and he figured it would be easier if the information was all in one place.

So, the Penticton, B.C., man and app developer KC Dyer teamed up about four years ago to build a mobile app that compiles active fires and fire danger ratings, evacuation alerts, and air quality reports from the provincial fire service, Environment Canada and NASA.

“We’re just two guys who wanted the B.C. wildfire data accessible quickly on our phones,” says the description of the BC Wildfire app.

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The app offers several different maps of wildfires in B.C., Alberta and the western U.S., an evacuation alert map, and a mashup of wildfires across western North America. Each fire is clickable, offering details including the size and estimated cause of the fire.

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“People are used to opening an application and having the information optimized,” said Kilback, adding that all the same information is found on government webpages with extra steps, but this is more accessible on a cellphone when people are camping or out in the woods.

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The number of users for the app varies throughout the year, but it peaks during the summer months, said Dyer.

In 2018, one of the worst years for wildfires in B.C., Dyer said there were more than 40,000 installations.

More than 27,000 users have installed the app so far this year, he said.

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For Anthony Ettlinger, the app means he can keep track of where his wife, Leslie Ettlinger, is working. She’s an on-call firefighter at a local fire hall and has been deployed on structure protection several times.

Ettlinger, who lives outside Vernon, said the provincial wildfire service does a great job of posting information online for people using computers, but he’s had trouble loading the same information on his iPhone.

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“(The app) gives me immediate access to the conditions near where I am.”

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The Ettlingers moved to Canada from the U.K. in 2015 and quickly realized how prevalent and destructive wildfires can be in B.C.

“There was an actual wildfire that started not far from the house and we sort of watched in amazement as the bombers and helicopters and everybody went in,” said Ettlinger, who recently donated to the BC Wildfire app to help keep it running.

Dyer said he’s grateful it’s been a slow fire season since he and Kilback have been paying hundreds of dollars each month to keep the app running at its peak.

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Last year, Google changed its pricing structure to provide a US$200 monthly credit equivalent to 28,000 free dynamic map loads.

In June, there were more than 60,000 BC Wildifre map loads, which cost them $336 after Google’s monthly credit was applied.

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Kilback estimates the small team who set out to create the app has paid around $14,000 out of pocket to get the app built and to keep it running. Dyer continues to work on the app for free.

“We kept getting these emails about how much people loved it,” Kilback said. “We just wanted to keep at it. We didn’t want to give up on the idea.”

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With more money, Kilback said they would like to add more features, like better options for uploading photos and reporting new wildfires and real-time communication between app users and B.C. firefighters.

“If we had really good information through the app that we could provide BC Wildfire Service that would help them triage and allocate resources to fires, that would be a huge benefit,” said Kilback, who fought wildfires in the Penticton area for four years.

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He and Dyer have approached the BC Wildfire Service in 2017, offering to develop an official app if the fire service covered the costs. The province declined, saying it planned to develop its own mobile app, said Kilback.

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Despite the setback, Kilback said he still has deep respect for the provincial fire service.

No one from the Ministry of Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations, which oversees the BC Wildfire Service, was available for comment.