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Waze sent commuters toward California wildfires, drivers say

Users warn apps like Waze taking them through neighborhoods near fires.
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This was startling scene along Interstate 405 in Los Angeles as a wildfire engulfed the hills. USA TODAY

The 101 Highway was closed after the Thomas Fire jumped the road towards the Pacific Coast Highway in Ventura, California, December 7, 2017.(Photo: Kyle Grillot, AFP/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES—Users of popular navigation apps like Waze are warning the services directed them to neighborhoods where wildfires forced closures and evacuations. 

The issue stems from the way apps like Waze help users avoid commute nightmares such as heavy traffic or construction. Largely reliant on information supplied by other drivers, when the Google-owned app notices gridlock on a user's route, it will reroute the driver to quieter streets — even if they're empty because drivers have fled smoke and the threat of flames.

Waze's directions to the Getty Center on Thursday morning (Photo: Waze)

Waze, which also works with transportation authorities and a team of local map editors to keep the app updated, says on any given day, those enflamed neighborhoods would have been shown as off limits within an hour of two. "We worked really hard Wednesday afternoon to get our maps up to date and accurate," says Waze spokesperson Chelsea Russo.  

Whether because the Santa Ana wind-fueled fires were spreading too fast — or some other reason — drivers Wednesday morning said the app's lag led to directions onto side-streets where fires had already closed them to traffic. 

On assignment to cover the fires, a USA TODAY reporter midmorning Wednesday looked to Waze for an alternative route to the Getty Center museum, after fires had closed the normal route, Interstate 405 north. 

Waze's directions Thursday morning gave no indication of fire danger (Photo: Waze)

The app suggested backstreets of the mansion-blanketed L.A. neighborhood of Bel Air instead, turning onto Bellagio Road, a thoroughfare that runs into the heart of Bel Air. Not noted by Waze at the time, there was a cop standing at the intersection, stopping drivers from passing through the Bel Air gates because the road led to the belly of the Skirball fire.

On Wednesday morning, there was no indication on the Waze app that any streets on the suggested route would be in fire territory, or even that there was a fire going on. That didn't change on Thursday either. 

As fires swept from hillsides Wednesday, forcing hundreds to evacuate, users asked Waze to update its service so it would steer drivers away. Other users sought to warn fellow drivers.

Waze and Google Maps are consistently ranked among the top navigation apps on Apple's App Store. Commuters in heavily congested areas like Los Angeles rely on the apps to cut minutes or sometimes even hours from their drives, a feature that's led to loyal followings. 

But sometimes routes go awry. 

The Los Angeles Police Department was alerting users of navigation apps to avoid using them so they don't end up near the blazes, reported The Los Angeles Times. Waze's Russo said the LAPD was working off Wednesday morning information. 

An LAPD spokesperson didn't return a request for comment.

The app on Thursday included closures on approximately 110 road segments in the area of the fires, as well as the locations of 16 shelters, according to Waze. Users can also make emergency calls from within the app.

What you don't see in Waze, or the other transportation apps, are notices that you may be driving into or near a fire area. A query for directions from Los Angeles to Santa Paula, where are there are many fire-related closures, for instance, would normally call for traveling north on 101 and switching to the 126 freeway. Waze Thursday instead called for many backroads, but didn't indicate if those detours were an attempt to route drivers around the fire, leaving commuters to hope that the app had updated. 

Google Maps and Apple Maps offered similar routes, and neither mentioned the fire. This is very different from information Google delivers over the web, where a search for particular California fires Thursday surfaced a Google Crisis Map that integrated California public fire data to show where fires had spread.  

Firefighters battle flames on State Route 150 between Carpinteria and Ojai Calif.  Tom Tingle, The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

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Bill Hahn, owner of the Rose Story Farm, at his 15-acre property, hoping that firefighters can save his property in Carpinteria, Calif.  Tom Tingle, The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

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An inmate wild land fire crew clears brush at the Rose Story Farm in Carpinteria, Calif.  Tom Tingle, The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

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Charred ground in the Shepard Mesa neighborhood smolders from a wildfire in in Carpinteria, Calif.  Kenneth Song, Santa Barbara News-Press via AP

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A fire-fighting helicopter makes a water drop on a hotspot near a house in the Shepard Mesa neighborhood in Carpinteria, Calif.  Kenneth Song, Santa Barbara News-Press via AP

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Firefighting helicopters try to save a house from the Thomas wildfire in Carpinteria, Calif. on Dec. 10, 2017. The Thomas fire is only 15 percent contained, now threatening the city of Santa Barbara and the nearby coastal town of Carpinteria, making it one of the worst wildfires in California history.  Mark Ralston

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A house burns near Casitas Pass Road as the Thomas Fire continues to grow on Dec. 10, 2017 near Carpinteria, Calif.   David McNew, Getty Images

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Firefighters move away from a burning house after discovering downed live power lines, as the Thomas wildfire continues to burn in Carpinteria, Calif. on Dec. 10, 2017.  Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

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Firefighters investigate burnt out cars, as the Thomas wildfire continues to burn in Carpinteria, Calif. on Dec. 10, 2017.  Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

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A firefighter hoses the burning ruins of a house near Casitas Pass Road as the Thomas Fire continues to grow on Dec. 10, 2017 near Carpinteria, Calif.  David McNew, Getty Images

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Horses that were evacuated from the Thomas Fire are seen on Dec. 10, 2017 in Ojai, Calif.   David McNew, Getty Images

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