Google Maps adds layer for tracking wildfires

The new layer on Google Maps gives users near real-time information about multiple major wildfires at once.

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Google on Wednesday announced a new layer it's adding to Google Maps that will let users see timely, critical information about multiple major wildfires at once. The feature could be particularly helpful for users driving through impacted areas, who previously could only see information about one fire at a time, either via the Explore tab or by getting directions through the affected area. 

"During wildfire season, it's never just one fire at a time," Google Maps product manager Can Comertoglu told reporters. "And it's never just about me -- I'm curious about my loved ones.' We wanted to make it a lot easier to see them all."

This year alone, Comertoglu noted, the US has already had more than 44,000 wildfires. During these events, it's critical for people to have timely, trusted information. The data for the new Maps layer primarily comes from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), which comprises eight different agencies and organizations that support firefighting efforts. 

The new Maps layer provides information about a fire's containment and how many acres have burned. It also provides access to resources from local governments, such as emergency websites. 

While Google's partnership with NIFC is providing data related to fires across the US, Google said it plans to expand the Maps layer to other countries, starting with Australia. While the feature currently requires an internet connection, the company is exploring ways to use it with more limited resources. 

"We know connection and power will be concerns" for those near impacted areas, Comertoglu said.

The new Maps layer will be rolling out globally to users this week on Android, with iOS and desktop coming in October.

In other news, Google on Wednesday said it's expanding its Tree Canopy Insights program to more than 100 cities around the globe. Among other places, the tool will be launched in Guadalajara, London and Sidney.  

Google launched Tree Canopy Insights last year as part of its Environmental Insights Explorer tool. It takes aerial imagery collected by Google's own fleet of planes during Spring, Summer and Fall. Using AI and Earth Engine's data analysis capabilities, the program can show tree cover density across a geographic location. 

With this information, government entities can make decisions about planning tree planting efforts to combat the impacts of climate change. Extreme temperatures are becoming more common where concrete and infrastructure are creating urban heat islands, noted Rebecca Moore, director of product for Google Earth. The increased temperatures lead to poor air quality, dehydration and other public health concerns. 

Typically, municipal tree studies involve months of block-by-block surveys. With the Google tool, officials "in less than a second can freely access a complete snapshot" of their city's leafy cover, Moore said.