October 25, 2020

California fires added to Google Maps, Search

As fires blaze across California, local and federal officials see hope in providing more real-time information.

Google announced Thursday it is updating Maps and Search to detail information about the size, boundaries and locations of fires in the U.S.

“We have seen a severe uptick in wildfires,” Google’s Ruha Devanesan said.

On Wednesday alone, more than 90 fires were burning in California and officials ordered the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. Twenty-six fires were bad enough to require state help.

“We’re all on edge,” said Abby Browning, chief of the office of private-sector partnerships in the California Office of Emergency Services. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and the best thing we can ask for is information.”

Google’s new features come as the company increasingly aims to centralize information on its own properties rather than directing users to third-party web sites.

As one of the world’s largest data collectors, Google is positioned to have the fullest view of geographical conditions. The company said it uses satellite data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Google’s planetary-scale platform Google Earth.

With the new features, users searching the name of a wildfire will see official updates. An “Affected Area” section will show a map view of a fire’s boundaries. When users click on the map, it will direct them to Google Maps, which will show road closures and warnings if they’re approaching an active fire, the company says.

The update also offers air-quality updates and safety tips from the American Red Cross for affected regions.

Public-private partnerships

Google’s new features also come as federal and local agencies partner with private companies including Google to surface disaster relief information ranging from earthquakes to the coronavirus.

The company and Browning said they hope to expand the features.

“We’ve had discussions about embedding Google team members in operations centers to connect better with our teams,” Browning said. “We’re working with Cal Fire and federal partners, and we’re utilizing that now but it will grow.” 

Google also shows more immediate information like evacuation alerts when available from local authorities through its “SOS Alert” features. However, it doesn’t show evacuation zones in the actual boundary maps yet, the company said.

“The public-private partnership couldn’t have come at a better time,” Browning said, adding that other tech partners have tried to create software solutions without seeking official input. “One of the hardest problems we deal with is misinformation,” she said. “We’re very thankful that Google had come to us to ask our suggestions and our thoughts for the information.”

Google executives said they hope to expand it globally. This year, the National Interagency Fire Center has predicted above-average fire risks across the U.S.

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