Last week, if you lived in southern California, chances are good that you were glued to the news of the wildfires raging around Malibu and San Diego. If you lived in San Diego, I'm guessing you had your car packed, just in case you had to evacuate. And this year, if you had access to the Internet, you had more tools than ever to keep track of where the fires were, where the evacuation sites were located, and how best to get there.
When Information is More Valuable Than Rubies
A good friend of mine lives in San Diego, and she recounted staying glued to KPBS, the public radio station out of the University California at San Diego which stayed on air, delivering updates for 75 hours straight, using another station's transmitter when the fires cut power to its own.
The station maintained a Google map of the area, showing the locations of the fires, evacuation sites, road closures, and any other relevant info they could think of. The station also opened its phone lines so that people could call in, either to get help or to provide it. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) maintains a site listing the current status of conditions and also includes a wealth of supporting information both for what to do during the fire and resources and information for recovery. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of these Internet-based tools didn't exist five years ago.
Another new development was the use of NASA's Ikhana unmanned research aircraft (scroll down to the October 26 entry), which flew over the area taking high-resolution images with its thermal-IR imaging sensors, identifying the hot spots through the haze and smoke. NASA's EO-1 satellite's Hyperion spectrometer used shortwave IR to take images of the area unobscured by the smoke.
The other thing that the Internet-enabled sites and tools can provide is two-way communication. The BBC News Web site's coverage of the 2004 tsunami, and more particularly its comment sections, became a central point to share information on people who were safe, looking for family members or other loved ones, or just sharing information about the conditions on the ground. While the Internet cannot replace more traditional communication systems, it can sometimes provide a supplemental path to get the word out.
On a related tangent, Making Light has an excellent post on preparing and maintaining a go bag or other grab-n-go emergency kit. Emergency preparedness: never a bad idea.