Type in the name of an ongoing wildfire into Google search, and the site will now bring up a map featuring a near-real-time boundary of the fire. Google revealed the feature today, which was piloted in California last year and will now be available across the US.
Google Maps will also update users with road closures and provide them with directions that help them avoid danger and roadblocks. If someone is looking at an area near a blaze on Google Maps, they’ll get an alert.
Getting accurate information to people near a wildfire can save lives. It’s also a constant challenge for emergency responders because the situation can change rapidly, while hearsay online can quickly drown out reputable sources. Google developed the new mapping feature with input from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) as part of an effort to make important updates easier to find.
When people searched for information on wildfires on Google in the past, they ran into one of two problems, Ruha Devanesan, crisis response product partnerships lead at Google, said on an August 19th press call. There was either not enough information or too much to reasonably sort through. In the latter case, speculation and unvetted sources might lead people into danger instead of safety.
The problem came to the attention of Yossi Matias, vice president of engineering at Google, in 2010 during the Mount Carmel fire near Haifa, Israel. Matias was working in Google’s Haifa office when his team saw billowing smoke outside. A Google search failed to turn up anything more helpful than what they could already assess from their windows. “While we did find some details confirming what we already knew—a large fire was taking place outside of our door—we experienced a potentially life-impacting information gap,” Matias wrote in a blog post announcing the new mapping feature today.
Now, the same Google search would result in more curated content. The scare Matias and his team experienced led to the development of Google’s SOS Alerts in 2017. Beneath a red banner labeled “SOS Alert,” the search results offer top stories, followed by official updates for emergency situations. Starting today, searches for wildfires will also include a more detailed map showing the boundaries of an active blaze.
Red dashes on the map outline an area consumed by flames. It’s generated from data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES satellites, which is then processed by Google’s geospatial analysis platform, Earth Engine. The result is the shifting, red boundary that’s refreshed about once every hour. One potential hiccup is that users will need to have an internet connection to get the most updated data — not something that is always reliable when fleeing from a wildfire.
Google says it hopes to roll out the feature in other countries in the future. And while its mapping is focused on helping out civilians, Google says it is also exploring how similar features could help emergency responders in California.
California’s fire seasons have grown more devastating as the climate heats up. “We’re all on edge, we don’t know what’s happening, we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring,” Abby Browning, chief of the Office of Private Sector at Cal OES, said during Google’s press call. At the time, her office was tracking about 360 fires raging across the state. “The best thing to calm anyone’s anxiety, to help anyone, is information,” Browning said.