Newsrooms use Google Maps to improve wildfire coverage

Wildfires charred Southern California last week, and millions of local residents logged online for news and information. But, at least initially, few sought traditional news narratives: feature stories about victims, video of fire lines, analysis of the firefighting effort. No, folks saw (and smelled) smoke… and they wanted to know where that fire was.

Fire coverage has become routine for Southern California newsrooms. The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer and the San Diego Union-Tribune an Online Journalism Award for their coverage of the last major round of wildfires, in October 2003. But the latest fires inspired a welcome innovation in local newsrooms’ coverage: the use of interactive Google Maps to chart the fires and their damage.

These fire maps, from the Los Angeles Times, the Union-Tribune’s and KPBS-TV in San Diego, logged more than 3.5 million page views last week, according to Google Maps Product Manager Jessica Lee.

Earlier this year, Google introduced the “My Maps” function to Google Maps, which allowed non-programmers to build and share customized Google Maps, using a simple point-and-click interface. That tool can help journalists quickly slap up an online map whenever relevant news, such as a wildfire, breaks.

“There were certain kind of information that we started with,” said Andrew Blankstein, staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. “How many acres has this fire burned? How many firefighters are on the line? Are there injuries? Have there been homes destroyed or damaged? Where is the fire moving. By laying out that, pinpointing it, and making it interactive so that people could see it, it became this tool that people were really drawn to.”

Blankstein said that the Times’ initial purpose was to help reporters track the fires.

“It started as this in-house tracking system that evolved into something that we shared with outside users. And it worked out beautifully.”

The Times’ Ron Lin developed the initial version of the fire map, using his personal Google account. Lin said that he “had played around” with building Google Maps before and credited the tool’s ease of use in helping him build a map on deadline.

“I think that the same skills that anyone would need to look up online directions from point A to point B would be the same skills you would need to update this map.”

SignOnSanDiego‘s Web team used a blend of My Maps functionality along with Google’s more robust mapping API to build its fire map, which ultimately included lists of shelters and burned homes, as well as fire origin points and burn areas.’s fire map

“It doesn’t take much technical expertise to create a map through Google’s site and share it,” wrote Phil Malavenda, Online Operations/Production Manager for, in an e-mail to OJR. “You just have to put points/areas on the map and make it public. It did take some programming expertise to host the map on our site like we did.

“That allowed us to add some extra functionality, such as the ability to toggle different information layers on and off. The mapping of burnt structures took quite a bit of programming expertise. We had to geocode and process lists of addresses, as well as the programming to create the interface to put them on the map.”

Once available, the fire maps proved wildly popular with information-hungry online readers.

“I talked with an assistant chief with the Los Angeles Police Department who said that ‘we had your map up at the emergency options center,’” said The Times’ Blankstein.

“The map was the third most viewed page on the site behind only the front page and the fireblog,” wrote Malavenda. “We continue to receive many e-mails from people thanking us for the work we did on the maps. Many of them, we’ve heard, used the map as their lifeline to find out about friends, family, and property in those areas that were affected by the fires.”

The popularity of the fire maps did not escape Google’s attention, either.

“When we noticed how much traffic the fire maps were getting, we increased our server capacity to make sure the maps could be displayed quickly and reliably to the people depending on them,” said Lee.

Once the maps were available, readers could not only use that data for their own information, but also in mash-ups that extended the map’s usability. One notable example? San Diego blogger Bruce Henderson mashed up KPBS and county fire department data with Google Earth images on his And-Still-I-Persist blog to create visually stunning 3-D renderings of the several fire maps.

A sample of And-Still-I-Persist’s 3-D maps

Last week’s wildfires challenged news organizations to break from conventional news narratives to deliver needed information to the public in the most timely and engaging ways that technology would allow. And with these fire maps, they responded.

“This ability to deliver information, in this new way, unfiltered and up to the minute, was really important to people,” said Blankstein.

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OJR asked Google Maps Product Manager Jessica Lee about other instances where publishers, either newspapers and bloggers, have used Google Maps to enhance their coverage.

Lee: There have been several other instances of My Maps being used for natural disasters and current events, but never before on this scale or magnitude.

BBC Berkshire: Flood Map — When floods struck the Berkshire region of the UK, the BBC created a map with photos, YouTube videos, and radio correspondence.

Minneapolis I-35W Bridge Collapse — When the I-35W Bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, someone created a map with photos, news, hospital information and prayer service locations.

Missouri Flood map — When torrential rain caused levees to break along the Missouri River near Kansas City, someone made a map of flood forecasts, water level information, and hydrographs.

Ware County Wildfire Map — A wildfire raged in Southern Georgia for a month, devastating 128 square miles of Ware and northern Charlton counties. Someone created a fire map for Ware County.

Oakland Maze Closure — When a tanker filled with 8,600 gallons of gasoline exploded and destroyed part of a heavily trafficked freeway overpass in Oakland, CA, several news outlets and individuals created maps showing alternate routes.

University Bridge water main break — When a large water main burst under the University Bridge in Seattle, it created a sinkhole and the bridge had to be closed. Someone made a simple news map of the event.

Users have created over 4 million maps over the last 6 months. Natural disaster maps are a fairly small portion of all the maps. Most are hobby maps or travel maps.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at