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

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The app launched in August 2021, at the top of the 2021 hearth season, which in California usually 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 one million folks. 

Its recognition has stunned 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 recognition is probably going a outcome of its straightforwardness. Social media supplies a (forgive the pun) firehose of info, not all of it related. People trying to get well timed data about emergency conditions are sometimes inundated by trolls, misinformation, retweets of the similar 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 pattern. Watch Duty weeds out all of Twitter’s extraneous chatter and shoots straight for its core purpose: telling folks the place a fireplace is true now, and the place it’s headed.

To do this, the app depends on updates offered by its volunteer “reporters.” They’re locals, scanner fanatics, and moderators of hearth 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 hearth 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 have been entering into, transferring 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 highway out and in of the property. Because of that restricted entry, she worries that an official evacuation order might 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 at the moment 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 screen and you’ll see the complete 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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