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Thursday, June 20, 2024

A Crowdsourced Wildfire App Tracks All of California’s Blazes

In the early morning hours of October 8, 2017, when a dozen different wildfires started in Sonoma County, California, Carrie Kramlich got a phone call. A friend who lived south of her said a fire was headed her way. Then came another call, from someone who lived to her north. The fire was burning there too. Kramlich and her husband wandered through a house filled with the smell of smoke, trying to come to terms with the idea that they were surrounded by flames.

“We thought, what is going on?” Kramlich says. “This is armageddon. This is a war.”

Through it all, they got just one official alert: an automated voicemail from the county sheriff's office warning them to evacuate.

A series of fires in the area went on to burn 245,000 acres, destroy nearly 9,000 buildings, and kill 44 people. Fortunately, Kramlich’s home and her family were safe. But the experience was harrowing, and it made her realize how starved for fire information she was.

Five years later, she discovered the Watch Duty app, which allows anyone to track active wildfires throughout California. The free, nonprofit service is not associated with any official emergency agencies. It’s run by volunteers who verify and post new information, photos, and map coordinates in real time, often well before state or local first-response agencies release any official statements. The community that powers Watch Duty has made it one of the fastest sources of updates on wildfires in California.

Data Dearth

Fires, by their very nature, are very difficult to track in real time. They can burn quickly, in every direction, and often rage in deeply wooded rural areas that are largely inaccessible. Official emergency responders, overworked and strapped by a lack of resources, struggle to fight fires and keep the public informed about a blaze’s every move. Alert services like Nixle allow people to sign up for official warnings, but those can leave concerned residents wanting. Such services tend to send notifications only for the most dire, immediate situations, like evacuations, and their effectiveness varies depending on the local agencies responsible for the situation.

That’s where volunteers on social media have come in. People in Facebook groups and on Fire Twitter have built whole communities of vigilant fire watchers who try to share accurate and timely fire info with the public.

Watch Duty aims to distill those often disparate efforts into something more direct and tangible. Open the app and you’ll find a map of California. Across the state, depending on the season, are a smattering of red-and-yellow icons indicating the locations of active fires. Zoom into the map, tap an icon, and relevant information appears: evacuation zones, a map showing the perimeter of where the fire has burned, and a scrollable feed of updates about the fire’s movements. Any new updates from official sources are added by one of Watch Duty's volunteers, so anyone tracking the blaze can see the latest news from both official and unofficial sources all in one place in near real time. Users can follow up to eight California counties for free. Any user who makes a donation (even $1) can track all 58 counties in the state. Whenever the app has new information to pass along about the fires in the counties you're tracking, it sends an alert accompanied by a custom audio notification that mimics the sound of a crackling fire.

Having a dedicated app that collates all the available information about a fire is a balm for concerned Californians.

“There’s a fear of being at risk,” Kramlich says. “Watch Duty is my Valium.”

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The app launched in August 2021, at the height of the 2021 fire season, which in California typically falls between June and October. At launch, the app covered only California’s Sonoma county. On June 1, 2022, Watch Duty expanded its reach to cover all of California. So far, it’s been downloaded by a quarter of a million people. 

Its popularity has surprised its founder, the software developer John Mills. “We had 22,000 users like four days after launching in Sonoma County,” Mills says.

Watch Duty’s popularity is likely a result of its straightforwardness. Social media provides a (forgive the pun) firehose of information, not all of it relevant. People looking to get timely info about emergency situations are often inundated by trolls, misinformation, retweets of the same photo over and over, and all the general chaos you’d expect on a place like Twitter. You can follow hashtags for specific fires, but even those get junked up with people’s well-meaning non sequiturs or bots built to spam any viral trend. Watch Duty weeds out all of Twitter’s extraneous chatter and shoots straight for its core goal: telling people where a fire is right now, and where it is headed.

To do that, the app relies on updates provided by its volunteer “reporters.” They’re locals, scanner enthusiasts, and moderators of fire groups on social media. None of them are affiliated with official agencies, but many draw on years of experience monitoring wildfires.

“These folks have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, and they already have the respect of the community,” Mills says. “Now, we just gave them a platform. That was kind of a key here, like, how do we help these people do their job better?”

Michael Silvester runs @CAFireScanner, one of Fire Twitter’s most prominent accounts. Last spring, a Watch Duty developer reached out to him and asked what he would want in a fire-focused alert service. When the app officially launched, Silvester was invited to participate as a reporter. Skeptical at first, Silvester says he now spends more time posting updates in Watch Duty than he does tweeting to his 125,000 Twitter followers.

“Twitter is a bit of a mess,” Silvester says. “Most social media platforms are a mess. Watch Duty just gives you that information straight without any chatter, without people posting their political views and stuff.”

Get the Message

The app has resonated with people in fire country. Catherine Carannante is a relative newcomer to California. She and her husband are building a house in rural Amador County, east of Sacramento and south of Lake Tahoe. She says they knew what they were getting into, moving into the tinderbox that is the Sierra Nevada.

“It was just a nightmare to find up-to-date information about fires,” Carannante says. There’s a single-lane road in and out of the property. Because of that limited access, she worries that an official evacuation order may not come swiftly enough. “We need a lot of time to evacuate, it won’t work for the county to just say, ‘Hey you need to get out and you’ve got 10 minutes.’”

During the Electra Fire last July, Carannante saw posts on Nextdoor about Watch Duty, and she decided to download the app.

“It was just amazing because you had one place that gave you a map with regular updates in normal human-speak, not this lingo that's really difficult to understand,” Carannante says. “And it was real-time updates. You didn't have to wait 12 hours to get an update.”

Watch Duty currently only covers California, but Mills doesn’t plan to stop there. The map in Watch Duty is built on OpenStreetMap, a community-driven mapping platform. Pinch to zoom out on the app’s screen and you can see the whole world—far more than Watch Duty’s current coverage area.

“We're going to keep pushing,” Mills says. “This is not just about fires, this is about emergencies and disasters. So you can imagine how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

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Silvester, the Watch Duty reporter, says users of the app have asked for updates on flash floods, an increasingly common occurrence when storms hit areas that have been ravaged by fires. But that expansion beyond wildfires alone also has the potential to spark an identity crisis for Watch Duty. The more calamities it reports on, the more it will compete with other emergency info apps like Pulse Point and Citizen.

“One of the things that I really love about Watch Duty is that it doesn't have so much noise,” Carannante says. “It is just what I care about, which is wildfires.”

For now, fires are still the developers’ focus. The most likely course of growth will be expanding to the rest of the West Coast—Oregon, Washington, and then into Nevada and Arizona. Mills says that the developers and reporters with Watch Duty are taking great pains to be as transparent and accurate as possible. The app does allow user submissions, but people who upload photos or video are required to do so through the Watch Duty app, which then accesses the contributor’s location to verify where the pic was taken. Any user submissions are screened by one of Watch Duty’s reporters before going on the app. (This stands in contrast to Citizen, which allows unmitigated user submissions and comments.)

Brian Ferguson, deputy director of crisis communications at the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services says that any way to get the word about disasters out to vulnerable people is a good thing. However, people need to keep in mind that alerts coming from Watch Duty are not official.

“There's a lot of good that can come from these when they're used broadly to understand the circumstances of what's happening,” Ferguson says. “But when it comes to life-and-death situations and decisions, particularly evacuations or public safety, there still really is only one source of truth. And that's from first responders who are on the ground in the communities, actually managing the incident.”

Even though they’re spreading unofficial information, the people behind Watch Duty hope to earn and maintain the public’s trust. Silvester, the Fire Twitter veteran, had always gathered most of his information on his own by monitoring dozens of radio channels and web pages. It’s an exhaustive, time-consuming process that takes up most of his time during fire season. When gathering news for Watch Duty, he and the other reporters use Slack to coordinate and pool information. Slack bots automatically pull in official updates, making the process of compiling everything and sending notifications even faster.

“There are so many people like myself on Watch Duty right now,” Silvester says. “There’s a sense of we’re a real team. We all help each other out.”

That sense of community has started to extend out to the people using the app. During fire season last year, Carrie Kramlich says she was in a local doctor’s office when an alert about a nearby fire came through the app. Watch Duty’s distinctive custom alert sound chimed not just for her, but for several other people in the room. They looked around, laughed about it, and got to talking.

“We were all really happy that we all had it,” Kramlich says “It said something about the people in that room. That we've been through something and that we're paying attention.”

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