It's springtime in the West, that time of year when brooks babble abundantly with snowmelt, cute baby wildlife prance around verdant meadows, blossoms cover tree branches like virgin snow, and it all goes up in flames. Hoping to keep as close an eye on the burning West as I do on my runs and bike rides, I scoured the Intertubes for the appropriate apps. Zillions of these things saturate the cyber world, and a lot of them are downright duds. But after many a download, I came up with a select few that I can recommend.
1. Weather Underground (FREE): This is my go-to weather app, for sure. The home screen has just about all the relevant information you could want: current conditions, forecast for the next several days, radar map, "Find Your Love" ad, and a weather watch/warning icon that displays the entire warning at a touch. The app also has an hourly forecast, which has proven to be fairly accurate. The map screen includes radar, but also a huge network of web cams that allow one to see the weather, just about anywhere, at any given moment, allowing you to track storms across the landscape.
2. Dark Sky ($3.99): Okay, I'm a cheapskate, and usually just stick with the free apps. But a lot of folks out there in the tech world rave about Dark Sky, so I figured I'd check it out. The interface is nice and uncluttered. The home page simply tells you the current temperature and weather, and what it's likely to do in the next hour, and that's it. The forecast only goes out 24 hours, which is not enough for me. Since the weather hasn't varied from hot and "clear" since I got the app, and may never do so in the future, I can't really speak to the accuracy of the forecasts. The reason I forked out $4 for this was to play around with the crowdsourcing -- it allows you to submit your own weather report, with a photo -- a concept with which I'm interested. There's no way, as far as I can tell, however, to look at the crowdsourced reports or photos from other users. They apparently just integrate your report into their report.
Earlier this year I tried out Weathermob, which is entirely crowdsourced: The only reports they have are from the "mob" out there, which would be you and me. Great idea, not a great execution, in my opinion. It's really more like a weather-oriented social media app than a weather information app, and as much about how you feel than about an accurate accounting of the current weather.
3. Dust Storm (FREE): Wanna know when the next Haboob is going to hit? This app, developed by Northern Arizona University, will tell you, as well as give you helpful tips about what to do once the wall of dust envelopes you. I had hoped that it would allow me to track dust storms as they moved across the Arizona desert or something. But this thing's way more bare bones than that, doing little more than sending you current weather alerts for your area. And that's about it. It could be helpful if you're actually in the path of a dust storm, but not so great for the generally weather-obsessed.
1. Wildfire Pro ($4.99), Wildfire Home ($1.99), Wildfire Info (FREE): One needn't search far to find a bevy of apps relating to wildfires. Finding one that's useful is a bit harder, especially if you don't want to pay for it. But Wildfire Info costs nothing and delivers what most of us want: A map and list showing all the active, and some inactive, fires in the U.S., along with details and a perimeter map for each fire. I forked out for the Pro version, which also includes a fire weather overlay map, weather/fire danger calculators, and other stuff that a fire fighter might need, even if I don't. It appears that the info is not updated quite as often as the Inciweb site for some fires, but it's never more than 24 hours old for active fires.
2. Wildfire from American Red Cross (FREE): If you live in the wildland urban interface, this might be the app for you. It allows you to monitor as many areas as you choose, and sends alerts when there are fires in those areas, along with a detailed description of the fire. It gives a check list of what to do as the fire approaches, a "toolkit" that can instantly turn your phone into a flashlight or strobe light, an immediate link to the Twitter feed for particular fires and to various social media to do a quick notification letting friends know you're safe.
I also tried out Burnt Planet because, well, who could resist a name like that? Relying on data from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers aboard NASA satellites, it pinpoints "hotspots" -- which could be wildfires or someone burning their field -- around the world. It's good for a broad, global overview, but that's about it. There are no data about individual fires.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: These apps are just another waste of time thrown at us by the Internet, like our "friends" telling us on Facebook what they had for breakfast; a high-tech form of voyeurism -- worse, disaster voyeurism -- that draws us into our electronic devices and sucks us away from the real world. After all, I can figure out the weather simply by stepping outside. And if a fire's approaching, I'll see the plume of smoke long before my gadget sends me a warning--if I bother to look up from my phone's glowing, beckoning little screen, that is.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.