This free app is the experts’ choice for wildfire information

Article by Shira Ovide: “One of the most trusted sources of information about wildfires is an app that’s mostly run by volunteers and on a shoestring budget.

It’s called Watch Duty, and it started in 2021 as a passion project of a Silicon Valley start-up founder, John Mills. He moved to a wildfire-prone area in Northern California and felt terrified by how difficult it was to find reliable information about fire dangers.

One expert after another said Watch Duty is their go-to resource for information, including maps of wildfires, the activities of firefighting crews, air-quality alerts and official evacuation orders…

More than a decade ago, Mills started a software company that helped chain restaurants with tasks such as food safety checklists. In 2019, Mills bought property north of San Francisco that he expected to be a future home. He stayed there when the pandemic hit in 2020.

During wildfires that year, Mills said he didn’t have enough information about what was happening and what to do. He found himself glued to social media posts from hobbyists who compiled wildfire information from public safety communications that are streamed online.

Mills said the idea for Watch Duty came from his experiences, his discussions with community groups and local officials — and watching an emergency services center struggle with clunky software for dispatching help.

He put in $1 million of his money to start Watch Duty and persuaded people he knew in Silicon Valley to help him write the app’s computer code. Mills also recruited some of the people who had built social media followings for their wildfire posts.

In the first week that Watch Duty was available in three California counties, Mills said, the app had tens of thousands of users. In the past month, he said, Watch Duty has hadroughly 1.1 million users.

Watch Duty is a nonprofit. Members who pay $25 a year have access to extra features such as flight tracking for firefighting aircraft.

Mills wants to expand Watch Duty to cover other types of natural disasters. “I can’t think of anything better I can do with my life than this,” he said…(More)”.