New tool consolidates fire information into zones for California residents

Parched hillsides are already showing more than a hint of an extremely challenging fire season at California's doorstep. 

 "I don’t like being that Doomsday guy, but in my 30 plus year career, this is the most uncomfortable I have felt going into the fire season," Mark Brown, with Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, said while walking on a dry hillside in Mill Valley.

As dry conditions lead to growing fear, a new tool is emerging to help first responders and the public: The real-time resource, called Zonehaven, is designed to be the single place for sending and receiving information during hazardous events.

"They can actually put a point on the map, use the current weather and get an estimate of where the fire will go, " said Charlie Crocker, the co-Founder and CEO of a new Internet platform. "During an actual event, every city and county is putting out different press releases, news channels coming in, stuff gets out of date, communication gets missed. How can we have one place, one common operating picture, one alert scenario where people can go and find out what is happening?"

While the platform was initially rooted in wildfire evacuations, it is equipped to deal with different hazards ranging from earthquakes to tsunamis to flash floods.

The key to pushing out the targeted information relies on a zone system.

During a wildfire, a specific zone is linked to critical messages that may include evacuation orders, traffic management, and updates to community warning systems.

The new platform has another interface that is designed to serve first responders.

"We bring in a huge amount of data - geography, historical weather patterns, historical disaster patterns, number of structures, population, traffic flow simulations - all of that stuff we bring in," said Crocker.

This wealth of information is a tremendous resource for fire crews and other first responders when dealing with an explosive wildfire. 

Nate Armstrong is a deputy chief with Cal Fire in Felton.  His introduction to Zonehaven was during a firefight last summer  - the CZU August Lightning Complex. 

"We had approximately 77,000 residents evacuated between San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties," recalls Armstrong.

 Instead of using a paper map to devise a plan and coordinate evacuations, fire agencies can now use a simple computerized interface. 

That automatically gives expected fire growth, zones that will be affected, and number of structures in the area. 

The CZU August Lightning Complex was Zonehaven’s big introduction to the public and it was well-received.

"People rapidly became familiar with it," said Armstrong. "They were getting into the system, registering with it, finding out what zone they live in.  They were watching that daily."Zonehaven’s coverage will be expanding this summer. The Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority is bringing Zonehaven to the North Bay and the system will soon be live.  
"We only had our wildland-urban area interface mapped.  Zonehaven is coming in and mapping our entire county, said Brown. 

Zonehaven is already live in Santa Cruz, San Mateo, and Napa counties. Over the summer, the live coverage is expected to blanket the majority of the Bay Area. 

"Zonehaven will be that tool because fires don’t care about jurisdictions. They just go over county lines," said Brown.

As zones continue to roll out over the coming weeks, it is crucial to find the zone you call home. This could be the first line of defense if a wildfire flares up in your community.

Residents can register and find their on the Zonehaven Aware website.