Sonoma County-founded Watch Duty app expands statewide

Watch Duty, a wildfire-tracking app, uses scanner information, crowd sourcing and wildfire cameras to spot threatening wildfires. The app expanded statewide this month.|

When flames touched the corner of John Mills’ Healdsburg property in August 2020, the former tech entrepreneur scoured the internet for updates on the fire.

Amid a historic siege of lightning across the state, Mills said he was astonished when he couldn’t find an official, single source that laid out up-to-the-minute information related to what became the Walbridge Fire.

So, Mills decided to create Watch Duty, an all-volunteer wildfire-tracking app that uses scanner information, crowdsourcing and wildfire cameras to alert users of threatening fires.

“I wanted to build something to allow us all to get real-time information pushed to our phones,” he said. “And so that’s what we created.”

Two years ago, when he retired from Silicon Valley to move to Sonoma County, he didn’t imagine he would be doing this.

But, he said it’s a necessity in California, where wildfires have become increasingly catastrophic and frequent among severe drought and climate change.

Approximately one year since the nonprofit’s launch, Watch Duty has been more successful than Mills and his team imagined. Their app has been downloaded to 121,700 devices and has just short of 4,000 registered users, mostly in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties.

Mills has recruited about 20 volunteers, including software engineers and wildfire experts like firefighters and those experienced with reporting wildfires.

As of June 1, the app expanded to monitor fires in the entire state.

Mills plans to explore funding that veers from the traditional nonprofit route of grant writing, potentially exploring user donations or selling data to Cal Fire or Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Sara Paul, a passionate founding team member, learned of the deadly 2017 Tubbs Fire from a friend’s social media post, which said: “I see an orange glow in the distance.”

Seeing the way social media could be used as a tool to spread information on wildfires and potentially save lives inspired her to create the Sonoma County Fire Updates page on Facebook.

In August, Mills recruited Paul, who was excited for the opportunity.

“For me, the most important aspect of Watch Duty is giving people peace of mind,” Paul said. “It's giving people information that will enable them to make decisions about evacuations and making sure that they personally are safe, or in some cases, their grandmothers or their elderly neighbors.”

With help from the community, Paul recently caught a suspected arsonist accused of setting a string of suspicious wildfires in Monte Rio.

A typical day for Paul is listening to fire scanner dispatches, checking the ALERTWildfire cameras and looking at Cal Fire aviation traffic. When a fire does pop up, the Watch Duty team relays the information on the messaging platform Slack and decides if and when it is worth posting on the app.

A fire icon is placed on the map and a push alert is sent out. Information is updated as they receive and vet it, including how threatening the fire is to lives, homes and wildlife.

As Mills spoke, team members were discussing a 1-acre fire in Sonoma. Watch Duty ended up posting it as a “silent incident” — information without a push alert. The Felder Fire, as it was later named, has since been contained.

On Tuesday, Evan Jacobs, 19, another volunteer for Watch Duty, was listening to his “pile of scanners” on his desk, keeping an eye on two fires outside Hollister in Central California.

Jacobs’ three years of experience training and volunteering for the Graton Fire Department helps him understand the clues that signal the severity of a fire, and gives him a better grasp on how firefighting operations typically go.

“Anyone can listen to a scanner on the internet, but it helps to have fire experience to understand what exactly that means,” he said.

Finding a passion for listening to the scanner and tracking fires in 2019, Jacobs volunteered for Sonoma County Scanner Updates that same year. When Mills reached out to him to join the Watch Duty team, he was eager to help out.

He said fire tracking takes a lot of his free time, but it makes the work feel worth it when he reads feedback from supporters.

“It's really nice to be able to realize that, even though you're not being paid for it, you're helping people with the information that you put out,” Jacobs said.

Mills says the feedback has validated the team’s efforts. They’ve received letters from users who were notified of a fire on their property and were able to create a fire line around it, as well as emails from schools that evacuated after a notification and messages from people who decided to stay in California after considering leaving due to fire danger.

“It's endless,” Mills said. “It's been probably the most rewarding thing I've done in my life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or On Twitter @alana_minkler.

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