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The Internet is Helping Us in Natural Disasters, But Not Enough

I just published a new post on the Silicon Valley Moms Blog about what’s now being called the “Summit Fire” in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Watsonville. As a kid who grew-up in tornado country, I was completely clueless about wildfires until yesterday. Now I’ve been studying everything available online to track the blaze because it’s just a few miles from my sister’s dream home, her animals, and one of the most beautiful pieces of property I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t know if I’m at liberty to describe it, but even if I did, still, it’s one of those places where you have to see it to believe it.

In any case, what I learned over the past 24 hours is that although we have 2700 firefighters on the scene to battle these fires, we only get semi-accurate updates about once a day about where the fires really are. People are in their homes waiting for calls or knocks on the door to evacuate. The neighbors who may or may not have phones or power communicate to the best of their ability, but they’re still not certain how far away it is. They see the smoke or possibly the flames, but it’s difficult to discern the distance. I found one live blog site where there was some minimal conversation via locals about what was going on to help sift through the mystery, but that was it.

So what I want to know is where do we go from here? What is the future of emergency response online? It has to be better than a few news sites and links. I’m not saying what we have now isn’t good. I’m happy we have the resources we do. But I know from my technology background that we can do better. We’ve put together phenomenal outreach programs and online activism to raise money and repair devastated areas. Why not create a place where communities can create ad-hoc emergency response sites as they arise? It’s possible something like this already exists, but not enough of us know about it.

What I found was one site for firefighters that said how to listen on short range scanners, some articles on the local newspaper site, a few maps that are only updated daily, the state fire site with data updated periodically (like every day or half a day), one satellite image of the fire, brief TV and radio coverage, a state road closures page, one live blog on the local news station web site where people exchanged notes, and a totally overloaded fire detection map at noaa.gov that nobody can use because everybody’s trying to get to it. And when watching the news and hearing from locals, it seems that the firefighters and police are keeping things barricaded for safety and not allowing any information transferral during the process.

Fires are dangerous, but if people can use personal weather stations and webcams like linked on the Weather Underground, why not have a system that applies locals as information centers online and includes what’s coming across the waves from emergency support services? Anyone out there have an idea of how to do this?


  1. >Actually, a corollary to this thought – what we really need is a site that can launch these emergency response communities quickly and make them targeted especially for mobile phones since that’s more likely to be of use than home computers & phones during power outages.

  2. >Hello Sarah,The key thing here is to know where the fire line is, and where possible to have a realistic estimate of where it is most likely to go in the next few hours.Camera systems which are geo-referenced (each image pixel is linked, by extending its line-of-site to the ground) can not only help detect such fires, but they can locate them on a digital map of the area.Oregon, Ontario and elsewhere have been installing these cameras. This does however require that those in the community at risk visit the web site where the fire-line location is “nowcasted”. In some states the fire line is also forecast for specific fires – see Scientific American (Aug 2007).We have been involved in a few of these projects.Regards, Gavin