Google Maps Is Here to Save You From a Wildfire

New feature shows fire details

Key Takeaways

  • A growing number of apps are available to give you up-to-date information on the location of dangerous wildfires.
  • A new Google Maps feature makes it easier for users to see wildfires.
  • Experts say that you should keep in mind that wildfires can destroy cell towers, limiting the ability of Maps to update information.
Google Maps Wildfire boundary map

Google

Your smartphone could help keep you safe from dangerous wildfires. 

Google is launching a Maps feature to make it easier for users to see wildfires. The new wildfire layer on Maps will show most major fires, and those demanding evacuations, around the world. It’s one of an increasing number of apps aimed at warning people of wildfires as the threat grows. 

"Knowing that a fire is just behind a ridge or above on the hills is very important information," Albert Simeoni, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who researches wildland fire behavior and impact, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Having access to that information quickly when events are happening very fast, and the authorities are trying to catch up can also be critical."

Growing Fire Dangers

Wildfires are threatening a growing number of communities around the world. According to federal data, the number of areas burned by wildfires in the US has increased over the last 40 years, currently burning more than twice the area than in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Last year, Google launched a wildfire boundary map powered by satellite data to help people in the US easily understand the approximate size and location of fire from their device.

"Building on this, we’re now bringing all of Google’s wildfire information together and launching it globally with a new layer on Google Maps," Rebecca Moore, the director of Google Earth and Earth Engine, wrote in a blog post. "With the wildfire layer, you can get up-to-date details about multiple fires at once, allowing you to make quick, informed decisions during times of emergency."

Google Maps users can tap the image of a fire to see available links to resources from local governments, such as emergency websites, phone numbers for help and information, and evacuation details. When available, you also can see information on the fire, such as its containment, how many acres have burned, and when all this information was last reported.

"It is good to have a sense of what is happening around you because most people just have a partial view of a fire coming towards them and really struggle to evaluate distances, particularly at night," Simeoni said. 

"I think that this new tool should complement, but not replace, other warning systems..."

If you’re not a Google Maps user, wildfire map information is also available online at the federal level and via NASA. On the local level, various state websites offer fire maps, such as CALFIRE or the Oregon Smoke blog, Simeoni pointed out. 

Many mobile apps are also available that draw data from government and private data and display them on maps to aid users in avoiding fires. For example, the Fire Finder app lets you quickly lookup information and images of any wildfire in the US. The app shows fire outbreaks on a satellite map and enables you to search for the fire you want to follow.

False Security? 

While the new Google Maps feature can be handy, it has limitations. After all, wildfires can destroy cell towers, limiting the ability of Maps to update its information. 

Fire behavior during extreme events can even change suddenly and take unexpected turns, Simeoni said. 

"People may think that the fire is far away from them or that they are not in its path, when in actuality they will be impacted very quickly," he added. 

"It is good to have a sense of what is happening around you because most people just have a partial view of a fire coming towards them..."

For instance, the Tubbs fire in 2017 had a spread rate of up to 6 miles per hour due to firebrands igniting fires ahead of the main fire front. 

"In this case, spot fires may not be detected quickly enough from satellites, and an hourly update will be too slow to capture the very high rates of spread," Simeoni said.

Additionally, don’t keep your eyes glued to your smartphone if there’s danger around, experts say. 

"I think that this new tool should complement, but not replace, other warning systems, and it is still very important to listen to the authorities as much as possible," Simeoni said. "This fact should be made very clear by Google."

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