The incredible speed and ferocity of the Carr Fire spreading into Redding, California has dramatically reinforced the need for citizens to access accurate information about wildfires in their area without the delays of waiting for official agency press releases to be picked up by the next newspaper edition or television news broadcast.

Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE) released their new report, FireWatch: A Citizen’s Guide to Wildfire Suppression Monitoring, that provides easy step-by-step instructions for accessing a number of different internet sites that track wildfires. Many of these internet sites offer the same maps and essential information that are used by fire managers and firefighting crews. Citizens can directly access these sites with their own computers and smartphones. Reporters do not have to wait for official briefings, or rely on official “spin” to find out where wildfires are located and what agencies are doing to respond to them.

Just like wildland firefighters who always seek to optimize their ‘situational awareness,’ citizens should do that too. Says Michael Beasley, lead author of the FireWatch Guide and veteran firefighter currently managing wildfires in northern California, “Don’t just be safe, think SAFE (Situational Awareness For Everyone) by seeking wildfire information directly from the source, and then sharing it with your neighbors. Wildland firefighters and the communities they serve benefit from an informed public.”

Given the dynamic nature of wildfires and the way they can rapidly spread or change direction, local residents and reporters both need to be able to access accurate, unfiltered information quickly without waiting for scheduled official information releases. Citizens gaining access to wildfire maps and information is vital considering the dramatic breakdowns in communication systems that have occurred during recent wildfire events. For example, last year during the wildfires in eastern Washington, communications infrastructure broke down when the poles carrying phone and internet cables burned up and fell down. Like modern-day Paul Reveres, cop cruisers raced through towns just ahead of fast-approaching flame fronts, blaring through loudspeakers warnings to residents to evacuate. Emergency communications must use satellite-based backup systems, and citizens must have the ability to gain wildfire information on their own if and when local media outlets or communication systems are not functioning.

FUSEE’s FireWatch Guide will hopefully improve the safety of citizens and communities who will no longer need to be dependent on official information outlets and can take initiative to gather and share information themselves. But the safety of firefighters will also be improved when they know that members of the public and press are watching out for them. Unfortunately, the general lack of transparency of suppression operations translates into a general lack of accountability if and when things go wrong. With the ability of residents and reporters to access essential wildfire information directly, it is hoped that agency decisionmakers will be extra careful (not overly cautious!) in managing firefighter exposure to risks and hazards.