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The Twitter Wildfire Watcher Who Tracks California’s Blazes

Standing on her back porch and peering through a gap in the trees, out across a canyon, Liz Johnston can see a patch of red light. The night sky above it glows an intense orange. A few miles away, a hill is ablaze: Massive flames are engulfing a dense expanse of pines, fir, and cedar.

It’s August 16, 2021—the middle of California’s fire season. Johnston is looking out at the Caldor Fire, which over the next two months will go on to burn 221,835 acres and prompt evacuations in the resort town of South Lake Tahoe. But here, in rural El Dorado County, 40 miles east of Sacramento, she hasn’t gotten an evacuation order.

Johnston’s house sits on a hillside in a forest that’s simultaneously verdant and bone dry. Beside the deck are pots of flowers, which she plans to arrange into a memorial garden for her mother, who died less than a month ago. The place doesn’t feel right without her mom inside it. Now the outside is all wrong too.

Johnston pulls out her phone to try to track the fire’s path. She checks Facebook, which is abuzz with the chatter of other locals hunting for information. She starts scrolling through Twitter. She sees tweets saying the fire is bearing down on the nearby town of Grizzly Flats, and she starts to panic. Her heart racing, she dashes into the house and packs up the few belongings she can fit in her Toyota CR-V—photo albums, her dad’s ashes, her mom’s old coat. She squeezes her cat, Chelsea, and dog, Niner, into the car, climbs into the driver’s seat, and leaves.

She flees to a town called Diamond Springs, a few miles away, and stays at her boyfriend’s place. That night, much of Grizzly Flats burns to the ground. Officials shut down the roads in the area. Johnston checks the official government maps showing the blaze’s outermost edges, but they haven't been updated in nearly 24 hours. On the county sheriff’s Facebook page, she finds an evacuation map that now includes her house. She thinks about all the things she couldn't fit into her car. The big oak desk where her mom loved to sit. The pile of her clothes that Johnston hoped to make into a quilt. The brand-new flowers for her memorial garden. Johnston plays a bit of Animal Crossing to try to distract herself, but she can’t stop thinking about her house.

Year after year, the American West burns—millions of acres go up in blazes supercharged by a warming climate, densely packed forests, and increasingly populated rural landscapes. When flames threaten, residents of fire country have to make the colossal decision of whether—and when—to abandon their homes. State and local agencies can seem excruciatingly slow to provide updates. If the woods can seem lonely on a good day, on a fire day the silence breeds pure fear.

“Everyone's stuck there trying to figure out what to do,” Johnston says. She spends the next few days glued to her phone—constantly refreshing her search of the #CaldorFire hashtag, wading through tweets about canceled Tahoe vacations, ignoring the gawkers ogling at the scale of the blaze.

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Then she finds herself stopping at a Twitter account called @CAFireScanner. Somehow it’s sharing updates about the fire’s size that she hasn’t seen elsewhere. It seems to know where the flames are headed hours before official sources. She feels desperate to know if her house will survive—and if her future will look anything like her past. Reading the tweets, she feels like she has found a lifeline.

An ocean away, Michael Silvester sits at a computer in his frigid bedroom. It’s winter in New Zealand, and the outside is cold and dreary. He flicks through dozens of browser tabs—maps, weather predictions, aircraft flight trackers, social media feeds—as he watches the Caldor Fire spread.

Michael is 30, with a stocky build, bright blue eyes, and unkempt brown hair, and @CAFireScanner is his alter ego. He wears a pair of noise-canceling Sennheiser headphones as he listens to the overlapping chatter of several emergency scanners covering the Caldor Fire area. First responders are barking orders and calling for help. As he absorbs their urgent messages, he realizes that people still haven’t gotten out of their homes. Cars are stuck on gridlocked roads. He can hear tragedy unfolding.

His fingers flying across his keyboard, Michael composes a tweet, starting with the #CaldorFire hashtag: “Strongly recommend evacuating if you're north of this, especially in the Happy Valley area: extreme fire behavior & Grizzly Flats is already impacted,” he types. “Radio traffic said expanding evacs, but nothing through social media channels yet.” It’s one of several dozen tweets he sends out that night.

During California’s long fire season—roughly May through October—Michael sits at his desk all day, sometimes for 18-hour stretches, keeping watch over that single state’s blazes. On his desk sit four phones: one personal device and three devoted to running PulsePoint, an app that monitors the radio channels first responders use. When emergency workers respond to a distress call, the app sends him a notification. The phones let him keep track of more than 100 agencies across California: Los Angeles County Fire, LAFD, Marin County, Sacramento, Napa County. The app only lets him follow 25 agencies per phone, so he runs another two phone emulators on his PC to cover even more departments. When he hears what he thinks is an essential detail of a fire’s movements, he tweets it in real time to more than 100,000 followers.

The irony, perhaps, is that Michael has never been to California. He’s never even left New Zealand. “Even I know it's a weird thing to be doing,” he says.

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Michael remembers first listening to a scanner when he was 12 years old and living in Tauranga, a vibrant, subtropical city on the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. His father was a volunteer firefighter at a station up the road. Michael spent much of his early childhood at the firehouse. The way he remembers it, he was practically raised there. When his dad got called to a fire, he would drop off Michael back at home before heading out. The boy would park himself next to the scanner unit his father kept. The radio operators’ occasional bursts of chatter about the firefighting kept Michael connected both to his father and the blaze he battled.

One day, when he and his dad were visiting another firefighter, he overheard the two men talking about a scanner website called FireDispatch.com. Michael decided to check it out for himself. The site showed emergency alerts for San Mateo County in California—a mall fire in Burlingame, say, or a brush blaze behind a Pacific Gas & Electric substation. Its coverage area was small, but to him it seemed radical: emergency radio feeds, available on the internet, that anyone across the world could listen to.

When Michael was 13, his parents split up. His father moved out and took the scanner with him. For several years, Michael heard almost nothing from him. After his 16th birthday, Michael dropped out of school and started looking for things to do. He decided he wanted a scanner. He had earned some cash by playing the video game Runescape and selling its in-game currency to other kids at school, and his mother drove him to a shop where he could buy the device. It was a gray and black handheld Uniden scanner with a long antenna jutting out of the top—the same type as his father’s. He brought it home, clicked it on, and listened.

That night a call came through. The operator was asking for an engine to respond to a fire at a furniture store. Michael moved closer to the scanner, rapt. Soon, it escalated to a three-alarm fire. Operators called for more units, his father’s among them. Michael sat and listened as the flames consumed everything inside the building and belched great black plumes of smoke into the sky. By the morning, the furniture store was gone.

Michael was hooked. He had gotten to experience the frenzy of emergency response—and found a tiny window into his father’s life. As the days went by, he realized the scanner feed wasn’t always so action-packed. But the spells of tedium made the distress signals all the more intense. “You never knew what was going to happen,” he says. “You could go weeks without hearing anything relevant to your dad, and then all of a sudden you'd hear three in a week.”

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To fill in the downtime, he started to branch out online. Over time he discovered more websites that hosted scanner feeds across the US, and he started listening to floods in New York. On the night before Halloween—Devil’s Night—he followed along as a rash of arson hit Detroit. In 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 plummeted into the Hudson River and made pilot "Sully" Sullenberger famous, Michael was in Tauranga, listening along.

He started contributing to one of the sites he followed, Incidentpage.net, which rewarded its users for typing up dense scanner jargon as more digestible text. The work earned him online shopping “points,” which he used to buy himself an Xbox, iPods, and gift cards. But perhaps more important, he learned how to interpret and distill the information. If he got something wrong in an alert, the site’s managers reprimanded him. He discovered he had a knack for the task.

The Incidentpage.net gig lasted a few years. Eventually, Michael went back to school to pursue a degree in computer science. In 2012 he found a job with a US company that allowed him to work from home. He kept the scanner feeds running while he worked.

More and more, the calls that drew him in came from California. Other disasters were one-offs, but California wildfires had a regularity to them, and their intensity was unmatched. On September 12, 2015, he happened to be listening when a fire in California’s Lake County ballooned into a 50,000-acre blaze. The Valley Fire, as it came to be called, destroyed several small towns and killed four people. Michael watched videos of flames devouring buildings and the wind whipping embers through blackened skies. The scenes were horrendous, and he worried about the people behind the cameras. "There was fire all around them,” he says. “I thought that was absolutely crazy." Michael sat there, the glow of his computer screen splashed across his face, gawking at the chaos. Across the scanners came frantic calls for help. From his perch on the other side of the world, he felt helpless. Unless—he started to wonder if he did have something to offer. After all, he’d heard the earliest alerts come through the scanner feeds. If there had been a way to get that information out to more people, could it have saved lives?

California’s fire season was winding down for the year, and Michael mulled over his idea through the off months. In 2016 his family ran into money troubles, and they left Tauranga for Te Aroha, a small mountain town an hour away. His friends and his old life felt far away, and he struggled with his isolation. Increasingly, he turned to the scanners. They offered a way out—a connection, however macabre, to the greater world. In May, shortly before fire season began in earnest, he clicked over to the Twitter tab in his browser, pulled up his account settings, and changed his handle from his own name to @CAFireScanner. “I did it so I was no longer sitting in the shadows, just listening,” Michael says.

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As he got into a rhythm of tweeting out alerts gleaned from his scanner feeds, he stumbled on a small community of similar accounts—mostly California locals who were tweeting about their nearby fires. They were part of a loosely connected community that has become known as Fire Twitter. It’s a global phenomenon, but California is a hot spot. He started to make inroads slowly: a retweet here, a DM there.

During the Thomas Fire in December 2017, Michael sent a message to another member of Fire Twitter named Thomas Gorden, who covers emergencies in Ventura County, California, as @VCscanner. Michael gave him props for how he kept his cool while sharing fire info. Gorden returned the compliment. Eventually, Michael asked him what his name was, and Gorden revealed it was the same as the fire they were currently covering. They hit it off and traded phone numbers. Now they chat regularly on Discord. When one of the two goes offline, the other keeps an eye on the areas they cover. “We're always there in the background, sharing information with each other at the same time, even though we don't technically need it,” Gorden says. “It's just nice to have another person who can confirm what you heard.”

Other members of Fire Twitter—including Sarah Stierch, a freelance journalist who tweets fire information for counties north of the Bay Area—fill out what has turned into an informal emergency alert system. “There are some people I would trust with my life in this group,” Stierch says.

Because California and New Zealand are 19 hours apart during most of fire season—meaning Michael’s clock is set to five hours earlier, but on the next day—he can cover California fires during their peak spread times. Fires usually pick up in the afternoon, when winds are the strongest, and into the night, when most locals are asleep. When a fire burns somewhere in the state, he’ll tweet dozens of times per day. He gained followers slowly at first, just a trickle of people, then en masse.

For a while, Michael treated his life on Twitter as an extension of his hobby of listening to scanners—a quick memo that went out to his followers. He kept the audio running in the background while he worked, and he posted when he could. He chatted with his mutuals. He went to bed at a decent hour.

Then, on one hot, windy California day in November 2018, all that changed.

That morning the Camp Fire erupted when Michael was asleep. The fire began its assault on the town of Paradise just after 6:30 am—deep into the night in New Zealand. Flames ripped through foliage, melted cars, leveled buildings. By the time he woke up, the community was already in shambles. Michael was stunned. Meanwhile, Fire Twitter was fully alive, with participants spitting out information almost as fast as the sparks could spread. He hurried to catch up and condense the information coming through the emergency scanners. But the sheer chaos of it all overwhelmed him. He had never seen a fire move so fast or destroy so much. No one had. Emergency alert systems failed to warn most residents of what was coming. All told, 85 people died and 18,000 structures were lost.

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Michael couldn’t shake the guilt of turning up late to the Camp Fire. He rigged alarms to be triggered by certain notifications, and he set up a special ringtone to wake him up if one of his Twitter friends called in the dead of night. He and the others on Fire Twitter began to depend on each other even more for coverage. Ben Kuo, who tweets as @ai6yrham, is part of a circle that Stierch calls the “OG fire crew.” “You're kind of tag-teaming like, ‘Hey, you get to take care of this,’” he says. “There's a natural hand-off. It’s definitely necessary nowadays.”

Michael became even more invested in learning the dynamics of California’s blazes. He read detailed weather forecasts and studied topography maps to try to predict which areas of the state were especially prone to fires. He memorized the agency codes, the lingo, the criss-crossing complexity of California’s many emergency agencies. “Mike has this weird ability to remember every single fire name—when they were and where they were,” says Gorden, his friend who tweets as @VCscanner. “I don't know how he does that.”

His account has become a forum for frantic fire victims and curious observers. People DM to ask him to elaborate on his tweets, or to explain some piece of firefighting terminology or strategy. They ask if they should evacuate and beg him to tell them whether their house has burned. He answers nearly everyone. “I really didn't know what I signed up for when I started this,” Michael says. “I didn't think it would be this big, or I'd have to get this deep into it.”

In a better world, Michael probably wouldn’t be a go-to source for breaking wildfire news. But public agencies tend to view speed and accuracy as being at odds. Even though Michael and the others on Fire Twitter pull their information directly from official channels, the specifics can be wrong or misleading, like the first hasty but sometimes unreliable calls that come through during any disaster.

Natalie De La Mora, a Cal Fire public information officer who helps manage the agency’s social media presence, says that her team makes sure that anything they tweet gets double-checked by the right people. “Of course getting information out in a timely manner is extremely important to us,” she says. “If we get information out there quickly, but it's wrong, that can lead to a lot of issues down the road.”

Several evacuees I spoke with have complained that much of the information Cal Fire puts out on fire incidents tends to come just twice per day, during morning and evening press briefings that are often televised and streamed on Facebook. “As far as mapping or figuring out the acreage or the containment, if a fire is moving very quickly, that's going to be difficult to ascertain, especially if it’s super erratic,” De La Mora says. “With the technology and resources that we have, this is about as fast as we're able to get out the information.”

Then there’s the problem that multiple jurisdictions manage California’s fires; some information comes from Cal Fire—but not all of it. The US Forest Service manages the federal forests, and local police and fire departments are often involved too. Paul Doherty, who helped start a volunteer-run organization called Fire Mappers to show updated fire boundaries, makes the point: “It's a crazy mosaic of agencies,” he says. “It's very, very complex. You can’t expect the public to understand when it's a sheriff that they should follow, or Cal Fire, or the Forest Service, or FEMA,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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Government agencies are savvy to this informational influx—they’ve built whole systems to manage it. The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have developed software for integrating disparate sources of wildfire updates. The volunteers at Fire Mappers rely on the same kind of geodata software that Cal Fire and other agencies use. The issue is translating the sheer volume of information to the public in a comprehensible way. “Governments don't always know the best way to reach out to the public,” Doherty says.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability who studies wildfires and extreme events, has also seen state and local agencies struggling to warn communities in time. “If there are random people on Twitter with phenomenal knowledge of how these things work who can provide this information in real time, minute by minute, there should be a way to leverage that kind of knowledge in a formal capacity,” Swain says.

Fire Twitter, of course, isn’t a perfect system. For one, non-officials aren’t beholden to accuracy. Michael has seen people take updates he’s shared and repurpose them as their own, often leaving out or altering key details in the process. Trolls, impersonators, and lookie-loos sometimes casually insert themselves into active wildfire conversations, using the hashtags people rely on to quickly find answers. Spamming hashtags "goes against what Fire Twitter should be,” Michael says. “It should be people trying to do their best to provide information.”

For the people who rely on it, Fire Twitter has grown into an essential service. In August, Jessica Holsey, an artist and graphic designer, helped her parents escape their home in Grizzly Flats. “I really don't have words for just what an incredible resource it has been,” she says, for the many people “who are scared that our homes are going to be gone.”

Two weeks after she evacuated, Liz Johnston is allowed to return home. The western front of the Caldor Fire has been contained, and most of the firefighting resources have moved East to battle the blaze in the South Lake Tahoe basin. Johnston climbs into her CR-V and drives back, passing through blockades of National Guard troops. Out her window she sees blackened buildings—the homes of neighbors she's known for years—reduced to smoldering piles of twisted metal and ash.

Her house is still standing. The smoke in the air is so thick she can’t see across the canyon. She goes into the backyard. Everything is still there—even the plants. But without anyone around to water them, the flowers for her mother’s memorial garden have died.

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Johnston acknowledges she’s one of the lucky ones. But it doesn’t feel like the disaster is over. She drinks bottled water out of concern that fire retardant dropped by bomber planes may have seeped chemicals into her well. She says she is thinking about moving. But she has no idea where she’d go. The most affordable homes in California tend to be located in the places most likely to burn. This existential paralysis, she says, is akin to what she felt after her mom died. “It feels like your world stopped, but the world didn't stop.” Johnston pauses. The smoke she’s been breathing all week has rubbed her throat raw. She coughs, then says, “The world keeps turning.”

Half a global rotation away, Michael’s about as far removed from that bleak scene as you can get. He tends to use his distance as a practical explanation for what he does. Living in New Zealand, he's not going to be evacuated or get cut off from the internet when the power in California goes out. He’s not likely to lose his house in a fire, or feel the smoke scratching up his lungs after sucking it in day after day. But the reality is more personal: He knows that people rely on him. For every angry Twitter troll with a grudge, there’s a dozen grateful followers sending him small donations and thanking him for his efforts.

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“Your diligence is invaluable,” reads one anonymous post on his donation page from September 2021. “You have the ability to transform uncertainty and despair into informed, decisive action for so many … when seconds often count, and when finding reputable information online is otherwise challenging at best. Thank you for all that you do.”

One donor, Bethany Golly, evacuated from the Lava Fire in Siskiyou County in June. She found the @CAFireScanner account while waiting for news about her home. “I was kind of going out of my mind a little bit there,” she says. “Just having that little bit of information meant so much to me.”

Still, tweeting from the edge of disaster takes its toll. Michael has questioned his own value against the glut of accounts that cover the same territory. He’s considered quitting altogether. The simplicity of it is tantalizing. He can just click a couple buttons, deactivate his account, and never look back. “What's the worst that could happen? I could just walk away and my life gets 97 percent easier—I'd have so much spare time,” he says. Then he smiles a little. “But what else would I do?”

On one of the last days of the Caldor Fire, Michael posts a tweet saying he is signing off for the night. Things have finally quieted down. He gets up from his desk, brushes his teeth, checks the alarms on his phone, and heads to bed. He lies there, running over the day in his head. Something’s bound to be burning in the morning. And when it is, Michael will be watching.


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