Watch Duty, the Crowdsourced Wildfire App, Tracks All of California’s Blazes

The app launched in August 2021, at the top of the 2021 fireplace season, which in California sometimes falls between June and October. At launch, the app lined solely California’s Sonoma county. On June 1, 2022, Watch Duty expanded its attain to cowl all of California. So far, it’s been downloaded by 1 / 4 of 1,000,000 folks. 

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

Watch Duty’s reputation is probably going a end result of its straightforwardness. Social media offers a (forgive the pun) firehose of data, not all of it related. People seeking to get well timed data about emergency conditions are sometimes inundated by trolls, misinformation, retweets of the identical photograph time and again, and all the basic chaos you’d anticipate on a spot like Twitter. You can observe hashtags for particular fires, however even these get junked up with folks’s well-meaning non sequiturs or bots constructed to spam any viral development. Watch Duty weeds out all of Twitter’s extraneous chatter and shoots straight for its core aim: telling folks the place a hearth is true now, and the place it’s headed.

To try this, the app depends on updates offered by its volunteer “reporters.” They’re locals, scanner lovers, and moderators of fireplace teams on social media. None of them are affiliated with official companies, however many draw on years of expertise 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 outstanding accounts. Last spring, a Watch Duty developer reached out to him and requested what he would need in a fire-focused alert service. When the app formally launched, Silvester was invited to take part as a reporter. Skeptical at first, Silvester says he now spends extra 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 folks in fireplace nation. Catherine Carannante is a relative newcomer to California. She and her husband are constructing a home in rural Amador County, east of Sacramento and south of Lake Tahoe. She says they knew what they had been entering into, shifting into the tinderbox that’s the Sierra Nevada.

“It was just a nightmare to find up-to-date information about fires,” Carannante says. There’s a single-lane street out and in of the property. Because of that restricted entry, she worries that an official evacuation order could not come swiftly sufficient. “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 final July, Carannante noticed posts on Nextdoor about Watch Duty, and he or she determined to obtain 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 presently solely covers California, however Mills doesn’t plan to cease there. The map in Watch Duty is constructed on OpenStreetMap, a community-driven mapping platform. Pinch to zoom out on the app’s display and you may see the entire world—excess of Watch Duty’s present protection space.

“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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