Google uses satellite images to help victims of massive Canadian wildfire

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A Bay Area tech team from Google is helping to give evacuees from the Alberta wildfire answers about the state of their homes. (KGO-TV)

Ten percent of the buildings in the Canadian state of Alberta burned down in a massive wildfire this month. It's the most destructive fire in Canada's history.

Nearly 600,000 acres have burned since the fire started on May 1. It could take months to fully contain the flames. More than 90,000 people had to evacuate their homes and many don't know if their houses are still standing.

A Bay Area tech team from Google is helping to give those evacuees answers.

A wall of fire chased many out of their homes.

"It's been mostly like an apocalyptic horror," said one victim.

They had only hours to escape. Now, it could be weeks before the can go home. "It is still unsafe for anyone who is not a first responder to be inside the barricades," said Alberta premier Rachel Notely

The biggest question for them is whether their homes are still standing. "There's like a couple houses left and I'm thinking that ours is one of them," said one evacuee.

Now, pictures are bringing some answers.

Christiaan Adams is part of the crisis response team at Google. "This is huge and devastating and heartbreaking for the people that live there," Adams said, "In times of disaster, people go looking for information on the Internet."

The crisis team puts it all in one place and Adams job is to get satellite images of the destruction.

"We heard all of stories about people finding out whether their house was still standing by looking at the imagery that we published on our map," Adams said.

Capturing those images takes immense coordination. Far from just snapping a picture, it takes a lot of engineering, and a little bit of luck.

Google owns Terra Bella, which has two of satellites tumbling through space.

"Satellites have pretty set orbits. You can't really steer them, so we have to wait until the orbit of the satellite goes over the location," Adams said.

Then there's another factor

"Over the weekend, there was a lot of cloud cover, so all of our images came back cloudy," Adams said.

The project earned Google praise from space.

"We were very excited when Chris Hadfield, the astronaut, tweeted about our imagery," Adams said.

And a chance to help in a long process.

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technologygooglefirewildfirefire rescuedestroyed homessatellitesSan Francisco
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