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Monitor fires in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties in real time with new app

They say that knowledge is power.

In some instances, knowledge also saves lives, especially in emergency situations.

“In this era of fire, knowledge is life safety,” said Jeff Okrepkie.

Founder and president of Coffey Strong, Okrepkie knows this firsthand. During the 2017 Tubbs Fire, Okrepkie and his family lost their Coffey Park house.

“We were just standing with another neighbor when we found out it happened,” Okrepkie said. “Another neighbor told us, ‘Hopper Lane is on fire.’ We went from having no information to all the information. But it was too late.”

That’s why John Clarke Mills and his team at Sherwood Wildfire created Watch Duty. Watch Duty is a new smartphone app and website that empowers residents from Sonoma County, Napa County and Lake County to monitor fires in real-time.

“These guys are actual radio operators and firefighter operators and ham radio operators,” Mills said. “We’re working with the first responders and keeping language simple. Words and language in these situations matter.”

Watch Duty is simple by design.

“There’s no editorialization of our information,” Mills said, adding that “we’re really just trying to fill a role that hasn’t been filled yet.”

The app launched Wednesday, Aug. 11. Mills and his crew were busy from the get-go, reporting on the Ford Fire in Valley Ford that was reported at 2:02 p.m. A false vegetation fire was reported four hours later in Monte Rio.

At least 6,000 people received updates about those fires. But more continue to download the app every day.

“It’s all about making a difference in humanity,” Mills said. “I received an email from a woman who lost her house in the Tubbs Fire and she said to me that she feels safer now because of this app. It kind of blew my mind.”

Push notifications received from Watch Duty during a fire in Two Rock on Friday, Aug. 13.
Push notifications received from Watch Duty during a fire in Two Rock on Friday, Aug. 13.

Okrepkie agreed that being able to receive information and push notifications is key to staying informed and being a more prepared county.

“Our cities and county governments are making efforts but it has to come down to you,” Okrepkie said. “It there’s a fire happening right next to you, you can’t rely on the government to tell you it’s happening.”

Okrepkie usually turns to Twitter when a fire erupts in Sonoma County. Since the Kincade Fire he’s learned to read and understand the key players of the Twitterverse.

“There are ham radio operators out of New Zealand and people who really geek out on this stuff,” Okrepkie said. “They provide great information.”

He’s set up a Tweet Deck he keeps rolling with a hashtag of the current fire incident to stay up-to-date.

“It gives me peace of mind,” he said. One he didn’t have in 2017.

Okrepkie is one of the early Watch Duty adopters.

“This app is a great way for people to pay attention,” he said. “I can’t encourage people enough do download things like this.”

Watch Duty can be downloaded for iphone and Android or can be accessed at watchduty.org.

Watch Duty is the first tangible project to come out of Sherwood Forestry Service Created and Wildfire– and Watch Duty – are both new endeavors for Mills. Mills’ experience in software engineering is crafting the software on the business facing side, he admits, rather than the consumer side. Yet, he’s been quite successful: Zenput, the software company he co-founded, supports 40,000 restaurants and stores across 40 countries with operations execution platforms.

Mills left Silicon Valley behind and is dedicated to Sherwood Forestry Service, a human capital project of sorts that is looking to solve the big problems of humanity, especially those affecting Sonoma County: clean water, nourishment, sanitation, safety and fire.

“I like to build stuff,” Mills said. “A good engineer sees a problem and fights their way out.”

Watch Duty will evolve. Users will soon be able to add photos of fires, empowering citizens and residents to have better communication during emergencies or evacuations. The photos will be approved by the Watch Duty team, Mills said.

“We aren’t creating another Nextdoor,” he added.

And, because the Napa/Lake/Sonoma counties area have trouble maintaining cell coverage, Mills has plans for phone service.

“Technology can’t do everything,” Mills said. “You still need people.”

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