“From New Zealand I watch fires in California. On the internet and without ever having set foot in the US ”| Digital Transformation | Technology


Fire in the Sequoia National Park (California) in September 2021. It is one that Silvester watches closely from his home in New Zealand.
Fire in the Sequoia National Park (California) in September 2021. It is one that Silvester watches closely from his home in New Zealand.PATRICK T. FALLON (AFP)

A California resident watches smoke from his home in the woods. Go to social networks and the official channels still do not give anything, not of course radios or televisions. He begins to fidget. Finally, in networks he finds an account called @CAFireScanner [escáner de incendios en California] which gives some indication of the scope and direction of the fire. The great paradox of this hypothetical but probable situation is that the sole manager of @CAFireScanner is Michael Silvester, 30, of Te Aroha, a rural community of about 4,000 inhabitants in New Zealand. And that he has never left New Zealand, much less to go to California.

Silvester’s story is an example of the flexibility of the internet to optimize people’s resources: how else could a young New Zealander with very specific skills and interests deploy them in the place that best suits him without leaving home? “I know it’s crazy, but the available technology helps me a lot, which is not available in other parts of the world,” he says. Silvester’s case was revealed by the magazine Wired, who even sent a photographer to his house to take a picture of him from behind. When EL PAÍS interviewed Silvester by video call, he advised that he preferred to continue maintaining the physical anonymity of his account.

Silvester’s interest in this world emerges from listening in fascination to police and fire stations in his spare time. “One of the things that makes it so interesting is that you never know what will happen, no two days are the same,” he explains. As a teenager he began to listen to these transmissions with his firefighter father. Hence his hobby grew. He gradually realized that the paradise for those interested in listening to the authorities’ stations is the US “In many other places it is encrypted, it is illegal or you have to go through a lot of bureaucracy,” he explains.

In Spain, this activity of listening and broadcasting the frequencies of security forces is illegal, according to David Marugán, an expert in radio communications: “In Spain it is totally prohibited. Although technically there are some frequencies that could be listened to because they go unencrypted, it is completely illegal. The General Telecommunications Law indicates that both listening and broadcasting is prohibited ”. Spanish legislation is close to what is usual in the rest of the world, where the United States is the exception: “In the rest of the countries it is usually similar, except in the United States. Historically, they have made an effort there that citizens can audit their security forces and although there are bodies that encrypt it, the common police and firefighters broadcast it openly ”, adds Marugán.

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His main tool for following the California fires is a page called broadcastify.com, where ordinary users upload the uninterrupted thread of their local stations to the Internet. Silvester has the top broadcasts in your browser’s “favorites”. To find out which of California’s roughly 800 fire departments to follow, Silvester uses an app called PulsePoint, which broadcasts emergency signals from across the United States, from a neighbor’s cardiorespiratory arrest to a fire. “These informative notifications provide early warning of local threats, such as wildfires, floods and utility emergencies,” says the information in the app on the Android Play Store.

Each phone with its PulsePoint application provides information for 25 services. To cover almost all of California, Silvester has four mobiles connected to 100 services. When an alarm goes off, you get a warning. Silvester has a degree in computer science, so writing a little program to automate his processes is easy for him. He telecommutes from home for an American company and finds it easy to organize to cover fires, which tend to be in the Californian summer, from May to October, when it is winter in New Zealand and Silvester is less inclined to go out. “It’s always raining here in winter,” he says.

California is an area especially suitable for this type of coverage. In addition to open emergency systems, there are many people living in rural areas. The @CAFireScanner account has more than 100,000 followers: “There are a large number of people affected. In other states there are fewer people and it is also more difficult to get information. California has a very unique system. And that system really benefits me, ”says Silvester. His account is the main one that covers the entire State, but there are a handful of people who are closely monitoring activity in their counties or districts. They are part of what is known as “Fire Twitter” or “Fire Twitter”.

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This trail of coincidences leads to other outstanding accounts from your counties or regions in California. But only Silvester is watching the whole territory. In addition to the application and the direct ones, it uses a series of resources on the climate or the flights of the seaplanes that help it to intuit the evolution of the fires. “I am especially aware of the wind, temperature and humidity,” he says. You always have tabs open in your browser with weather details and the Flight Radar24 page, to know the flights in the area of ​​firefighters. Your third indispensable tool in the browser is a page with hundreds of webcams. “Another great resource in California is the wildfire camera network. They have 800 cameras located around California in the most fire prone areas and they are very quick to point the camera at the fire. So you can see where the fire is and how big it is, ”he says.

The official channels usually limit their communications to the time of the official press conference and are not above the same level as Silvester. “Not to criticize them or anything, but I would say they lack the real granularity of the detail. These fire agencies have their little area to monitor and they stay there. They do not know what is happening at the other end of the state. On the other hand, I know which areas are hotter or windy and I have taken care of knowing where the most dangerous points are, that is what I study. So if I see a fire in one of those areas, it becomes a priority in my head. ” Your work could actually become paid if a California agency wanted to pay for it. At the moment it does not seem that it will happen. Meanwhile, Silvester has a crowdfunding system activated where dozens of people have donated and left messages of appreciation: “I trust your experience every California fire season” or “great job, glad you’re out there.”

Silvester began his specific activity for California in 2016. He changed his Twitter name to @CAFireScanner and began his information work. In the bio from his Twitter account recalls that “tweets are not official and should not be treated as such.” His goal is to give that bit more information at a time when any detail can save a life: “I’m just saying where the fire is going so that the people who live there leave their homes, which is my main goal. I keep people informed and that people see the smoke in a nutshell of what is happening, ”he says.

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Along with the technology, there is something else that has made Silvester’s work stand out: the magnitude of the fires. “I started in earnest in 2016, but in 2017 things started to get serious with the Thomas fire. That was the largest in modern history. But since then there have been seven more. Today that is only number eight ″. None of those eight is the deadliest, which occurred in November 2018, outside of the usual fire season. That day Silvester went to bed in New Zealand without knowing that a catastrophe was underway in which 85 people were going to die. Since then he has set up a system where an alarm goes off if something big happens, to wake him up. Silvester admits that if he simply closed his Twitter account, his life would be much easier and easier. “But what would I do then?” He wonders.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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