How Google is fighting fire with real-time mapping data

(Dawn Armfield, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Some of the worst wildfires in California’s history have killed at least six people.
  • Wildfires can move at up to 22 kilometres per hour and are unpredictable.
  • Google has added satellite data to its maps to show the locations of wildfires.

You probably can’t outrun a forest fire. They can travel at speeds of up to 22 kilometres per hour and are dangerously unpredictable.

The fires currently tearing through parts of northern California include the second and third largest in the state’s recorded history, have seen 200,000 people asked to leave their homes and killed at least six people.

Staying one step ahead of a wildfire really can mean the difference between life and death. Not just for those caught up in one, but for the people attempting to bring such fires under control.

Google is now adding satellite data into its mapping facility to show the precise locations of wildfires in close-to real-time.

Fire boundaries are clearly marked and refreshed hourly
Fire boundaries are clearly marked and refreshed hourly Image: Google
Wildfire timelapse.
Wildfire timelapse. Image: Google Maps

Early warnings

The data also feeds into the company’s maps and navigation tools, meaning anyone in the vicinity of a fire, and using Google Maps, can be alerted to the danger. Satellite data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is fed into Google Earth, and is refreshed hourly. This gives both infrared and standard optical views of the location and spread of fires.

Forest fires are part of the natural cycle of the woodland ecosystem, actually helping to maintain biodiversity. Not only does fire kickstart the germination process of many seeds, it also “initiates critical natural processes by breaking down organic matter into soil nutrients”, Nasa’s Earth Observatory explains. How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

In the last 100 years, more than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields, and all of the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits.

These trends have reduced diversity in our diets, which is directly linked to diseases or health risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity and malnutrition.

One initiative which is bringing a renewed focus on biological diversity is the Tropical Forest Alliance.

This global public-private partnership is working on removing deforestation from four global commodity supply chains – palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper.

The Alliance includes businesses, governments, civil society, indigenous people and communities, and international organizations.

Enquire to become a member or partner of the Forum and help stop deforestation linked to supply chains.

Climate change is partly responsible for wildfire spread, or is at the very least becoming a contributory factor. Reduced rainfall in northern California has left forests and surrounding areas drier than normal, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. This helps create the ideal circumstances for fires to get out of control, regardless of how they started.

Large parts of the US face higher than normal fire risk this year, including California, putting lives and property in jeopardy. The cost of fighting such fires is also on the increase, almost doubling in California across the first two decades of the century.

Counting the cost of California’s wildfires.
Counting the cost of California’s wildfires. Image: Statista

Google ran a test of its fire detection feature during the 2019 California wildfires, collecting feedback from emergency services on its effectiveness.

“We collaborated with organizations, like the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and Boulder’s Office of Emergency Management, to gather expert recommendations on wildfire preparedness and response,” Matias writes.

“Their feedback throughout our 2019 pilot helped identify what information is most useful during emergency situations.”

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