Now You Can Forecast Fires Just Like the Weather
As wildfires get worse, these powerful new tools will help keep you safe
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
This week, California’s Ferguson Fire has grown to 17,000 acres and claimed the life of a firefighter. Photos from it show towers of smoke rising above the Sierra Nevada mountains. Does that mean you should cancel your trip to nearby Yosemite National Park? If your kids are at summer camp there, are they safe? Is the park itself under threat?
As the fire season lengthens and as wildfires become both more severe and more common, we need to start rolling information about them into our everyday lives—just like we do with the weather forecast. Luckily, visualizing the spread of a wildfire has gotten as easy as predicting afternoon showers thanks to three powerful new tools.
The first in an upgrade to the government’s all-agency fire data clearing house InciWeb, which has gained a new map feature for each of the fires it reports. So instead of a wall of bureaucracy-speak, you can instead actually see exactly where a fire is burning when you go read about it. This info is updated each morning. Straight from that page, you can follow links to the fire’s hashtag on Twitter and Instagram for photos and crowdsourced information. A Facebook link directs you to the page of whichever agency is responsible for managing the fire, where that agency posts live updates and critical information.
Want to use that information to inform your navigation in the backcountry? The most powerful off-grid navigation app that you can get on your smartphone—OnX—just began rolling InciWeb’s data into its own map layer, again updated each morning. So long as you have data, you remain apprised of a fire’s current perimeter and you can overlay that info on topo, street, and satellite maps. OnX also allows you to add layers for historic fire locations, so you can plan around burn areas, too.
But what about smoke coverage? Variable wind conditions can make smoke’s movements difficult to predict, and there is no government reporting on it. Satellite images make it hard to tell smoke from clouds. Luckily, a new data visualization startup from Santa Fe, New Mexico, just released a tool that cleans up satellite imagery of wildfires and presents them in immediately understandable time-lapse format. Follow @WildfireSignal on Twitter and you’ll be able to track fire and smoke conditions as they evolve.
Together, these tools make forecasting fires as easy as predicting the weather. And just as there’s more to going outdoors than knowing if you’re going to get wet or not, there’s more you can do with that information than simply figuring out if an area is safe to visit. Is a fire burning toward a road? It may not yet be closed, but could be in a couple days when you plan to pass through. Want to pick mushrooms or bag a deer? Last year’s burn areas are often the best locations for both. Will the air be smokey? Look and see. Are your friends and family safe? So long as you know where they’re going, you can know for sure. And now you can figure all that out from the other side of the country, on your phone.