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This free app is the experts’ choice for wildfire information

3 weeks ago 32

One of the most trusted sources of information about wildfires is an app that’s mostly run by volunteers and on a shoestring budget.

It’s called Watch Duty, and it started in 2021 as a passion project of a Silicon Valley start-up founder, John Mills. He moved to a wildfire-prone area in Northern California and felt terrified by how difficult it was to find reliable information about fire dangers.

One expert after another said Watch Duty is their go-to resource for information, including maps of wildfires, the activities of firefighting crews, air-quality alerts and official evacuation orders.

“It’s the app I now use the most, and I really like it,” said Michael Gollner, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley whose research focuses on wildfires.

Even if you’re not at risk from wildfires, we’ll probably all deal with natural disasters like floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards or extreme heat. Watch Duty is an example of technology turbocharging the expertise of government officials and hobbyists to keep us informed and safer during crises.

Watch Duty pulls together official sources like law enforcement news briefings and video camera feeds of fires with information compiled by skilled staff and volunteers who listen to public safety radio communications. (Some of them are retired firefighters or other public safety personnel.)

In the app feed, Watch Duty tries to compile and make sense of the jumble of information. You can sign up for free wildfire notifications for counties in about a dozen states.

Anthony Zarate in Spokane, Wash., is a Watch Duty fan and recommended the app to neighbors during a recent wildfire in the area.

Zarate said Watch Duty spares him from hunting through local news reports, public safety notifications, online posts and other sources. “It takes the best parts of social media and public services and puts it all in one spot,” Zarate said.

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Experts like Gollner say Watch Duty is useful to keep tabs on fires to stay vigilant, but it’s not a substitute for official information or government evacuation orders.

Issac Sanchez, deputy chief of communications for the California firefighting agency known as Cal Fire, said unofficial sources of information like Watch Duty might lack the nuance or context of governments’ public communications.

“Whatever you choose to do to enhance your situational awareness, Cal Fire supports,” Sanchez said. “Just be aware that sources you listen to may be unofficial.”

Watch Duty’s app does show when information is from its staff or volunteers, called “reporters,” and when it’s from an official source like Cal Fire.

No information source is completely reliable. Mobile phone and internet service can fail during fires and cut people off from communications. Gollner also said people shouldn’t become complacent if a wildfire is far from them now. Fire and wind conditions can change quickly.

The origins of Watch Duty

More than a decade ago, Mills started a software company that helped chain restaurants with tasks like food safety checklists. In 2019, Mills bought property north of San Francisco that he expected to be a future home. He stayed there when the pandemic hit in 2020.

During wildfires that year, Mills said he didn’t have enough information about what was happening and what to do. He found himself glued to social media posts from hobbyists who compiled wildfire information from public safety communications that are streamed online.

Mills said the idea for Watch Duty came from his experiences, his discussions with community groups and local officials — and watching an emergency services center struggle with clunky software for dispatching help.

He put in $1 million of his money to start Watch Duty and persuaded people he knew in Silicon Valley to help him write the app’s computer code. Mills also recruited some of the people who had built social media followings for their wildfire posts.

In the first week that Watch Duty was available in three California counties, Mills said, the app had tens of thousands of users. In the past month, he said, Watch Duty has had roughly 1.1 million users.

Watch Duty is a nonprofit. Members who pay $25 a year have access to extra features like flight tracking for firefighting aircraft.

Mills wants to expand Watch Duty to cover other types of natural disasters. “I can’t think of anything better I can do with my life than this,” he said.

How to stay informed and prepared for wildfires or other natural disasters

Sign up for emergency alerts in your area. California residents can use the Ready for Wildfire site to sign up for emergency alerts. Or search the web for the name of your county and “emergency alerts.”

In some counties, you can text your Zip code to 888777 to sign up for local public safety text alerts through Nixle. Read more about emergency alerts.

Follow your local police and fire department on social media. Sanchez said it’s important to keep tabs on official information, including from Cal Fire’s website.

Use information sources like Watch Duty or local news. Gollner has a list of wildfire resources here. Google Maps also shows wildfires, which can be helpful to stay informed before you travel.

Listen to local officials no matter what. “If you’re ever being told to evacuate by emergency personnel, do it. Don’t wait,” Gollner said.

Sanchez also said you should “listen to your gut.” He said he got a phone call recently from a family debating whether to leave their home as a wildfire burned not far away. There was no official evacuation order, but they didn’t feel safe at home. Sanchez advised the family to trust their instincts.

Do advance planning for a fire or other disaster. Cal Fire’s preparedness guide can help you create an emergency kit and make the area around your home is less prone to catching fire. Many of the tips are useful for other natural disasters.

The Washington Post also has a guide to what to do before, during and after a hurricane that can help you with other kinds of emergencies.

Research also shows that having strong bonds in your community builds personal resilience when disaster hits.

Sanchez said it can feel scary to imagine all the terrible things that could happen. He said we can instead think of preparing for potential emergencies as a way to buy ourselves peace of mind.

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