How the cloud could save your life in a wildfire

Cutting through the smoke with connected solutions

By | 3 minute read | February 22, 2019

Kenji Kato, the creator of Wildfire Report, is using the cloud to disseminate life-saving information.

In the summer of 2014, fire surrounded Kenji Kato’s hometown.

Between July and August, the Carlton Complex Fire burned more than 250,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes across north-central Washington, including Omak, the city where Kato grew up, and where his parents and one of his brothers were all living. Today, it remains the largest single wildfire in Washington history.

At the time Kato was in California, where he works as a principal research engineer at NASA. He couldn’t get to Washington that summer, but as he watched the crisis unfold, he knew he wanted to do something to help his community back home. So Kato did what he does best: he got on his computer, and started tinkering.

“I know from being in some of these fire areas that individuals affected by these fires usually don’t have access to anything more than a paper map to find out the fire bounds,” he said. “While the data is electronically available it’s not done in a way that the average individual can easily access.”

Quickly, Kato figured he could take publicly available geographic data from NASA, NOAA, and the Forest Service and apply it to fly-through videos of impacted areas that would make the fire’s path and speed easy to understand. He started posting the videos to YouTube, and as they amassed tens of thousands of views, he realized he’d touched on a need that wasn’t being addressed anywhere else.

“The presentation is a huge element. There are well-intending groups that put the data out but it’s just not done in a way that the average user is able to understand,” he said.

Four years later, wildfire season returned, and on July 31, Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency. Back in California, Kato knew he needed to figure out how to bring his wildfire information to a wider audience. He saw the opportunity when he heard about Call For Code, an initiative challenging developers across the world to build disaster relief technology using IBM and open-source software. That August, he attended a Call For Code hackathon and made some crucial steps toward scaling his project.

With the computing power and speed of the IBM Cloud, he’s now able to source data sets automatically and build scores of new videos automatically. And with a new mobile app, he’s able to get those  videos out to individuals and first responders seamlessly.

“Whenever you grab it, you’ll have the latest data. You can browse and interact with a map, and you can watch a short customized video of your area,” he said. “You can also add notes to the map and sync that to the cloud, which will help other people.”

Kato’s app, Wildfire Report, is still in the pilot phase. But he believes it could soon transform the way firefighters do their jobs and revolutionize the way people navigate in life-or-death scenarios.

“In the past, wildfires wouldn’t typically move at these crazy breakneck speeds we’re starting to see. With the Camp Fire, the Carr Fire, the Napa fires, they moved so quickly that traditional first responder systems didn’t have a way of getting this information out to people quickly,” Kato said. “The idea of the app is to have an automated system that can help with that.”

Wildfire Report is designed to be “offline first,” meaning its core features are built to function with or without an internet connection. That’s important for firefighters, Kato said, who often lose network connection when they head into a fire. It’s also important for people trying to safely escape a wildfire’s path when other communication systems fail.

“In remote areas, if a fire takes out one of the primary cell phone towers, you lose the entire network in the area. A lot of these areas don’t have the best cell coverage to begin with, so the combination makes it really hard,” he said.

For Kato, hackathons are “mental sporting events” that allow him to experiment with new technologies and stay engaged with the latest developments in the tech industry. But they also present opportunities for him to contribute to the social good.

“There are people out there that aren’t just out to build the next social sharing app and make a billion dollars out of it. They genuinely want to make the world a better place, and they can use their skills to do that,” he said.