If you've ever been tempted to call Twitter useless, reconsider; the service is allowing thousands of Southern California residents to stay safe by receiving up-to-the-minute geographical information about the spreading fires. Twitter's short, instant updates are perfect for bare-bones, factual updates, and and it's not the only Web service helping out panicked Californians. Several Google Maps mashups have emerged with dynamic blaze information and evacuation details, and a number of blogs are tracking the destruction chronologically to allow people to predict if their homes will stay safe.
Luckily, technology is serving SoCal while officials are struggling to; according to one former California State Fire Marshal, citizens' courses of action are often decided on an individual basis with only the information at hand, since "fire officials don't know exactly when evacuations should occur." However, the Internet is famous for its vulnerability to misinformation. Should people switch off their computers and rely on TV news to get more credible and actionable information?
According to one San Diego-based writer, Twitter has been invaluable for his family; he's discovered three feeds that are providing neighborhood-by-neighborhood information on the spreading danger. Luckily, one of the feeds is operated by a local news station, so he can be fairly sure he's getting reliable reporting. Each of the feeds is easily tracked, since every tweet is tagged "#sandiegofire" and therefore more easily searchable. Because the fires can damage ISP infrastructure in the area, many users have signed up for text-message tweets on their cellular phones in case their land-based internet connections are destroyed.
Google Maps are being used by several outlets, not least of all the Governor's office, to provide zoom- and pan-able maps of fire locations, shelters, evacuation zones and destroyed neighborhoods. Good ole fashioned blogs are also proving invaluable; the blog Cat Dirt Sez is providing a credible running list of destroyed properties and homes gleaned from information from the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Luckily, it seems that reliable news sources as well as citizen journalists have teamed up, whether wittingly or not, to provide a series of informational sources that can safely trusted at first glance — or cross-referenced for accuracy. However, this begs the question: shouldn't technology be preventing disasters, instead of simply abetting disaster response?
As it turns out, large swaths of multimillion dollar homes have been untouched by the blazes because of experimental landscaping technology meant to stem California's susceptibility to fast-spreading fire. As the Union-Tribune reports,
Probably the most dramatic example of [preventative landscaping] is Cielo, a development of 178 multimillion-dollar custom homes that escaped damage despite a blaze that blackened hillsides all around it.
It's quite amazing," said Mike Andrews, a superintendent for Rancho Cielo Estates, developer of the subdivision. "When you look up at the homes from the bottom of the hill, you see that the whole hill is black until you get within 100 feet of that house, and from there up to the house, it's green. I was just blown away to see how well everything worked.
The idea of protecting houses instead of relying on evacuation plans is part of a controversial disaster-response plan called "shelter in place." The idea: make entire neighborhoods impervious to fire, so that even if surrounding land is engulfed, people don't have to venture out into dangerous conditions just to evacuate. Because fire's behavior is so erratic, evacuations are often unpredictable and unnecessary. So how do you make a neighborhood in bone-dry San Diego fire-proof?
Common requirements for homes built in the shelter-in-place communities include indoor fire sprinklers, noncombustible roofs, wide roads and driveways for firefighting equipment and 100 feet of defensible space around homes with irrigated, fire-resistant plants.
Earlier this year, county supervisors expanded the concept by adopting shelter-in-place guidelines for developers wishing to build in backcountry areas where access is limited. They include tough building and landscaping standards with the requirement that property owners pay for monitoring and enforcement.
In the next few decades, it's likely that this technology for monitoring and prevention will become ubiquitous in fire-prone areas of the Golden State, as it has in Australia, where it was pioneered after a devastating blaze in 1994. It's great that citizens are finding so much aid and comfort in technologies like Twitter and Google Maps — but here's to hoping that someday, they won't have to.
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