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At first, the fire map on the Sonoma Ecology Center’s website looks just like all the others. The North Coast and its various counties are bordered by gray hatch-mark lines. Orange shading is layered on top to mark the boundaries of land burned during October’s firestorm.

What’s new in this fire map, are the bubbles. Varying in size, each hovers over the burn scars, and has a number in the center. The larger the bubble, the more photographs it contains. When users zoom in or click on a map bubble, it scatters into even more, also with numbers.

Zoom in tight enough on one, say the corner of Highway 12 and Madrone Road just south of Glen Ellen, and the photos appear. It was there at that intersection, on Oct. 9, center Executive Director Richard Dale, his wife and center program manager Caitlin Cornwall and their 10-year-old son, Leo, watched from a roadblock as the Nuns fire raged near Audobon Canyon Ranch. Dale took a photo of that moment: Leo covering his nose with his orange shirt, Cornwall walking along the side of the road.

The point of the ecology center’s map is to capture those memories in a citizen science project that asks the public to upload photos taken of the fires and the post-fire landscape, provide a time stamp and mark the location where they were taken.

It’s part of a larger study the ecology center hopes to work on with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to understand how, where and why the fire spread, Cornwall said.

So far, more than 120 photographs have been submitted from throughout the burn zones, including the one snapped by Dale at the corner of Madrone Road and Highway 12 that first afternoon, said Alex Young, who, as the ecology center’s geographic information system manager, built the map. The center is accepting photos taken between Oct. 8 and Oct. 30.

“We can’t intelligently plan for fire and manage fire unless we know why it behaves the way it does,” Cornwall said. “We need to understand in detail what actually happened and why. Why did some canyons burn and others didn’t, why did some vegetation burn hotter and other vegetation burn cooler? Why did the fire put itself out on some fronts and not others? When the fire was being driven by the wind, how did it behave differently?”

The project also serves as a community self-portrait, Cornwall said.

“Every photo that goes up there, you end up thinking about where this individual person was standing, and were they worried about their house, were they backed to leave when they took that photo,” she said. “It’s a community portrait at an intense moment.”

To see the map and upload your own photos, go to

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here