The app launched in August 2021, at the height of the 2021 fire season, which in California typically falls between June and October. At launch, the app covered only California’s Sonoma county. On June 1, 2022, Watch Duty expanded its reach to cover all of California. So far, it’s been downloaded by a quarter of a million people.
Its popularity has surprised its founder, the software developer John Mills. “We had 22,000 users like four days after launching in Sonoma County,” Mills says.
Watch Duty’s popularity is likely a result of its straightforwardness. Social media provides a (forgive the pun) firehose of information, not all of it relevant. People looking to get timely info about emergency situations are often inundated by trolls, misinformation, retweets of the same photo over and over, and all the general chaos you’d expect on a place like Twitter. You can follow hashtags for specific fires, but even those get junked up with people’s well-meaning non sequiturs or bots built to spam any viral trend. Watch Duty weeds out all of Twitter’s extraneous chatter and shoots straight for its core goal: telling people where a fire is right now, and where it is headed.
To do that, the app relies on updates provided by its volunteer “reporters.” They’re locals, scanner enthusiasts, and moderators of fire groups on social media. None of them are affiliated with official agencies, but many draw on years of experience monitoring wildfires.
“These folks have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, and they already have the respect of the community,” Mills says. “Now, we just gave them a platform. That was kind of a key here, like, how do we help these people do their job better?”
Michael Silvester runs @CAFireScanner, one of Fire Twitter’s most prominent accounts. Last spring, a Watch Duty developer reached out to him and asked what he would want in a fire-focused alert service. When the app officially launched, Silvester was invited to participate as a reporter. Skeptical at first, Silvester says he now spends more time posting updates in Watch Duty than he does tweeting to his 125,000 Twitter followers.
“Twitter is a bit of a mess,” Silvester says. “Most social media platforms are a mess. Watch Duty just gives you that information straight without any chatter, without people posting their political views and stuff.”
Get the Message
The app has resonated with people in fire country. Catherine Carannante is a relative newcomer to California. She and her husband are building a house in rural Amador County, east of Sacramento and south of Lake Tahoe. She says they knew what they were getting into, moving into the tinderbox that is the Sierra Nevada.
“It was just a nightmare to find up-to-date information about fires,” Carannante says. There’s a single-lane road in and out of the property. Because of that limited access, she worries that an official evacuation order may not come swiftly enough. “We need a lot of time to evacuate, it won’t work for the county to just say, ‘Hey you need to get out and you’ve got 10 minutes.’”
During the Electra Fire last July, Carannante saw posts on Nextdoor about Watch Duty, and she decided to download the app.
“It was just amazing because you had one place that gave you a map with regular updates in normal human-speak, not this lingo that’s really difficult to understand,” Carannante says. “And it was real-time updates. You didn’t have to wait 12 hours to get an update.”
Watch Duty currently only covers California, but Mills doesn’t plan to stop there. The map in Watch Duty is built on OpenStreetMap, a community-driven mapping platform. Pinch to zoom out on the app’s screen and you can see the whole world—far more than Watch Duty’s current coverage area.
“We’re going to keep pushing,” Mills says. “This is not just about fires, this is about emergencies and disasters. So you can imagine how deep the rabbit hole goes.”