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Mapping a Wildfire : : Mapping Practices, Authoritative Knowledge, and the Unpredictable Nature of Disaster


This dissertation examines the relationship between mapping a wildfire, production of knowledge about the wildfire, and general understandings of regional risk and disaster expertise. It takes as its starting point maps made during the 2007 wildfires, centering around a Google My Map made by an ad-hoc network that improvised their way through their mapmaking. It asks : how did making these maps under the duress of the disaster create a way of knowing the disaster that was valued by scientists, first responders, journalists, and the public alike? Why did an ad-hoc map gain the authority it did to describe the unfolding disaster? In approaching these questions, this interdisciplinary project draws on science and technology studies, communication studies, visual culture studies, critical geography, and disaster studies to treat disasters as spatial practices rather than external features imposed upon spaces at specific times. This project uses mixed-methods that look backwards and forwards, beyond the immediacy of the hazard being faced to understand how value and authority are attributed to the maps. To do so, it links historical methods of fire tracking and communication, social and technical wildfire mapping networks and practices from 2007, and imagined potentials, future expectations, and anticipated disasters as they have played out in disaster mapping since 2007. It also situates these practices within networks of actions that were human, technological, and environmental. This project finds that how a disaster is made knowable shapes what is considered authoritative, conceptions of risk, and what qualifies as threat. It suggests that temporality is a primary organizer of uncertainty, accuracy, and thus a map's value. Only when representational practices remained flexible enough to incorporate local resources and changes over time yet were presented in stable and standard enough ways to share information between diverse groups were these practices able to establish authoritative stances in relation to general knowledge about the disasters. As importantly, this project argues that knowledge and expertise are distributed, something that, if acknowledged in mapmaking, can capture within a map some of the dynamism and multiplicity of meaning that exists within any disaster

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