Communicating with the public during evacuations is not easy

fire Evacuation to beach
Australia Royal Commission photo.

Officials in Australia have started a process that should be of interest to fire managers and public officials in the United States. They are establishing across the continent common terminology and symbols to indicate the level of threat from an existing wildfire or other emergency and the recommended action that should be taken. Previously there was not complete consistency among the eight states and territories, which at times led to confusion about what the level of danger was and the action that should be taken. This was especially a problem near the borders of the states when a message from across the border may use unfamiliar jargon.

Australian Warning System icons
The new Australian Warning System icons, 2020.

The Australian Bushfire Warning System is a national, three level bushfire alert system, “Advice”, “Watch and Act”, and “Emergency Warning”.  Australia recognized the inconsistency problem with their 8 states.

But not only do the 50 U.S. states have different systems for describing potential and current wildfire conditions, they also may differ city to city and county to county.

Warnings for evacuations

One of the most stressful times in a person’s life can be when they are forced to evacuate due to a wildfire, flood, or extreme weather event. This is not the time to give them ambiguous instructions, or use jargon many of them have never heard before. LEVEL TWO EVACUATION! What in the hell does that mean?  Or, EVACUATION IS AT THE SET LEVEL!  Or, WATCH AND ACT!

Recently used evacuation jargon has included:

  • Mandatory, Order, and Voluntary;
  • Level 1, 2, and 3 (or,  I, II, and III)
  • Stage 1, 2, and 3
  • Ready, Set, and Go

And I won’t even get into some that have been used for large structures such as Horizontal, Vertical, Partial, Vertical Phased, or Progressive Horizontal.

After reflecting on the massive evacuations required by wildfires in 2017 and 2018, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommended standard evacuation terminology and phrases for cities and counties to use during an emergency within the state, based in part on a White Paper written for the office in 2019.

Evacuation Order: Immediate threat to life. This is a lawful order to leave now. The area is lawfully closed to public access.

Evacuation Warning: Potential threat to life and/or property. Those who require additional time to evacuate, and those with pets and livestock should leave now.

Shelter in Place: Go indoors. Shut and lock doors and windows. Prepare to self-sustain until further notice and/or contacted by emergency personnel for additional direction.

Evacuation Order(s) Lifted: The formal announcement of lifting evacuations in an area currently under evacuation.

Hard Closure: Closed to all traffic except Fire and Law Enforcement.

Soft Closure: Closed to all traffic except Fire, Law Enforcement and critical Incident resources (i.e. Utility, Caltrans, City/County Roads etc. or those needed to repair or restore infrastructure).

Resident Only Closure: Soft closure with the additional allowance of residents and local government agencies assisting with response and recovery.

In most U.S. locations fire departments do not have the authority to issue evacuation orders. It is generally stipulated they have the expertise to know when and where it should take place but they make that recommendation to law enforcement who actually issue the order to the public, and enforce it when necessary.

Notifying citizens that they are in the path of a fire has proven to be extremely difficult, subject to technical problems and human error. Many jurisdictions have purchased reverse 911 systems that can make phone calls or send texts to warn residents in a specific area of a threat. In some cases each person has to opt-in, and if you’re a visitor you may not be notified. There are a few apps available for mobile phones, some of which are not operated by government agencies and may not be 100 percent reliable for immediate notification.

Wildfire apps and services

The U.S. Forest Service has had Wildfires Near Me in development since 2016, and it is still in beta. It’s not an app, but you can sign up online, give them an address you’re interested in, and specify to be notified by email or text message of wildfires within your desired distance from that address. It does not issue emergency notifications such as evacuation orders, but you might receive a notice each time an updated Incident Status Summary form, (ICS-209) has been entered in the NIFC system, once or twice a day, about fires in that location. Then you can go to InciWeb to get more details.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a “web-based app” but it can’t be installed from the Android, Google, or Apple app stores. It can provide some information about fires managed by CAL FIRE, but it generally has no  information about US Forest Service responsibility fires or those of local jurisdiction. Colorado also has an app, Colorado Wildfire Watch App which is designed to only be available to people in the state.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

A system in the United States, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), is another possibility and can be activated by state and local public safety officials, the National Weather Service (NWS), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (think Amber Alert), and the president of the United States. Beginning in 2019 the accuracy of the geotargeting for WEA became more precise, requiring providers to deliver the alerts to the area specified by the alert originator with no more than a 1/10 of a mile overshoot.Wireless Emergency Alerts The system uses location processing in the mobile phone itself. The handset receives the alert including the polygon of the alert area, then the phone uses its GPS-assisted location to determine whether it is inside or outside the polygon. Even if you’re far from home, but in the threat area, you should receive the alert.

On August 15, 2020 the NWS used WEA to send out the first ever real time warning about a fire tornado on the Loyalton Fire about 12 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada.

“Our forecasters were tracking the plume on radar and were seeing rotation signatures comparable to that of a tornado. Factoring in public and firefighter safety, they issued a rare tornado warning associated with a large fire,” said NWS Reno Meteorologist and Public Information Officer Chris Smallcomb. Upon inspection, NWS found evidence of three different tornado paths with the largest being a low-grade EF-2. Said Smallcomb, “NWS Reno’s fire tornado warning has resulted in a robust policy conversation within the NWS and partner agencies about the utility of such warnings in a wildland fire situation, since it had never been done before!”

Between January 1 and September 14, 2020, alerting authorities sent 1,750 WEAs. The topics were for missing children AMBER alerts, severe weather, flash floods, and COVID-19 related for mask wearing, shelter-in-place notices, social distancing, and testing facility locations.

Do we need a national fire warning app specifically for wildfires?

Australia has considered the development of a national all-hazard warning app to address the limitations of the bushfire warning apps during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. Some state or local jurisdictions in Australia have apps that can push notifications and have Watch Zone functionalities.

Australia’s Royal Commission report included this about the potential for a national bushfire warning app:

Data from state and territory governments lacks consistency and this presents a challenge to developing a national warning app. Availability of nationally consistent data is a key enabler for the development of a national app by the Australian government, or a commercial provider.

The same limitation may exist in the U.S.

A new app to predict wildland fire behavior

Wildfire Analyst Pocket appTechnosylva has released a new free app for smart phones that can help predict fire behavior. It is called Wildfire Analyst Pocket and is available for Android phones. It will soon be on the Apple app store as well.

In a video filmed May 21, 2018, the president of the company, Joaquin Ramirez, introduces us to the app.

Technosylva is one of the companies that produce systems available now that could lead toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, tracking in real time the location of firefighters and a wildfire.

CAL FIRE’s Wildfire app

CAL FIREThe California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, has a new application for smart phones that provides wildfire alerts. After downloading Ready for Wildfire users can sign-up for customized alerts that will send a text or a push notification to their device when CAL FIRE is responding or assisting at a wildfire in their area. Additionally, users can set up alerts for single counties, multiple counties, or statewide. If traveling, the app lets them enable an alert system when a wildfire is reported within 30 miles of their device.

The Ready for Wildfire app also gives homeowners tips for creating defensible space, hardening their homes with fire-resistant construction, assembling an emergency supply kit, and creating a family communication and evacuation plan.

“One of the many benefits of our new Ready for Wildfire app is the timely and accurate information it provides to residents about a wildfire in their area,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director and California’s state forester. “I am excited about this new valuable tool that will provide early alerts to the public to help ensure their safety.” To download the app, visit the App Store or the Google Play Store – search for CAL FIRE and install.

For more information visit

Collecting, processing, and distributing weather and fire behavior data on a smart phone

A modern smartphone has many times the processing power of the computers on the Apollo spacecraft that took astronauts to the moon. Increasingly, wildland firefighters in the field are taking advantage of the smart brilliant devices in their pockets.

An article published in Fire Management Today (in the third quarter of 2015) covers two smart phone applications, or apps. After the user inputs the current weather and environmental conditions they can calculate various parameters and share them via mail or use various archiving options. One of the apps even uploads data to a remote computer server where advanced simulations can be performed which then return forecasts for the next 3 to 12 hours.

Fire Weather Calculator 

Fire Weather Calculator

(These images are screen shots from the app.)

Below, FDFM and PIG, are Fine Dead Fuel Moisture and Probability of Ignition. The app can harvest information from the smart phone and insert it into the fields, including time, date, latitude, longitude, and elevation.

Fire Weather Calculator

From Fire Management Today:

This application allows the user to input traditional observations (e.g., dry bulb, wet bulb, etc.) and have the application calculate critical information, such as relative humidity and probability of ignition, which both saves time and ensures consistency between weather observers. More importantly, however, is the ability to archive and share these digital observations with other users and managers in real time. This application allows for more streamlined management of weather information, a critical aspect of any fire event. The ability to share observations, particularly if many users are archiving their observations, will lead to a very useful archive of crowd-sourced data that will be used to create value-added products, such as the calculations of 3-dimensional weather fields that could be shared with personnel to increase their situational awareness.

Fire Weather Calculator is for Android devices and iPhones.

Topofire Weather app

The Topofire Weather app takes the weather calculations to the next level, however it is no longer available. In searching for it we contacted one of the authors of the article, Matt Jolly, a research ecologist at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, who told us that it has been removed because they “are working on better options for displaying geographic information across all devices, rather than just a few platforms. We are almost ready to release it but development is going slowly right now.”

Topofire Weather looks like it was rather intriguing, as you can see from the description in Fire Management Today:

Similar to the Fire Weather Calculator app described above, this application allows users to enter a suite of fire weather observations that are normally collected on incidents. These observations, as well as the time and location, are sent directly to the TOPOFIRE server, where they are permanently archived and can be made available to users and fire weather forecasters. Weather information entered into the phone can then be used to parameterize the WindNinja simulation model, using either current observations or gridded data from the Real-Time Mesocale Analysis dataset (RTMA).

Users can also request forecasts for the next 3 to 12 hours, using data from the National Digital Forecast Database. Model simulations are then run on the TOPOFIRE server, and outputs are returned to the user’s phone in the form of a keyhole markup language (.KML) file that can be opened on the phone on GoogleEarth.


(The image above is from the article in Fire Management Today. Click on it to see a larger version.)

The Topofire Weather app apparently required access to government computer servers, which may prevent the ordinary user from being able to take advantage of its entire functionality.

We will look forward to the next generation of the app.