The L.A. Fires Prove It: Google Maps Has No Idea What a Map Legend Is.

Los Angeles is burning all around me, and…

Oh, wow. Lookie there, right near my home, on Google Maps.

A green fire symbol!


Okay, now I’m paying attention. It’s right near me!

What should I do?

What does green mean? Is that bad?

And what are all those black fire symbols?

Google provides no help at all to those near today’s L.A. fires who might want to understand whether the symbol near their home means they are in imminent danger of dying from toxic fumes, are safe and sound, or are on fire right now.

I panic and mentally assign these items the worst values possible:

Fire Legend

I finally spy a “LEGEND” button in the upper left of my browser screen. Huzzah! But clicking it just regurgitates the same stuff I can already find by clicking around on the map itself.


Sorry Google, but knowing the individual names of the fires is not very helpful to me in this potential emergency situation. I know the fire near me is the “Wilson Fire.” But I can’t tell if the fire is out, or old, or new, or just got the “green light” from Miramax to keep on burning.

What the hell is wrong with you, Google Maps? Did none of you guys ever attend elementary school?

A list of place names is NOT A LEGEND! 

A legend or key on a map is not supposed to tell us what the map already says. It’s supposed to help us read the map, by interpreting symbols, colors, and other symbolic shorthand images so that we can mentally translate them into mountains, or hospitals, or roads.

You know, because it’s a map. It’s not a fucking spreadsheet.

Here’s a classic example of a map legend that I’ll bet many of your designers are familiar with:


See? Anyone who can clutch a pen could have done this in five minutes. It’s so easy, and yet it’s crucial for the maps’ readers.

Without this legend, just think how many kids might have perished at the hands of a bridge troll they never saw coming!

The closest thing I can find to a source to help me not perish while using Google Maps is not on this map or even in Google Maps’ webpages at all. I finally track down some snooty design notes from the obscure Google blog about the Google Maps upgrade last year. Here’s its guide to Google Maps color coding:


Based on this guide, I think Google Maps is telling me that the Wilson Fire is either an active park, or it’s a high-concentration vegetable.

Maybe Swamp Thing has risen up to battle humanity with his putrid vine webs?

I have a slightly better time when I check out the Google Crisis Response Team’s map:


This map at least has a legend for the red and black fire symbols. Black means contained (though what does “contained” mean exactly?), and red means active. And now I know that the dark red patches means “warning,” not necessarily that those entire areas are on fire now.

But still no help about what my closest fire symbol means!

My best guess is based on what happens when I somehow snag this little hoop symbol with my cursor and drag it over the Wilson Fire symbol.


Note how it says “This is not a CAL FIRE incident?”

I think what I’m seeing here is that really, Google Maps doesn’t come with a set stack of symbols for fires at all. Maybe each of these map-making safety organizations (within Google or not) has to custom-curate its list of symbols, and then updates the red and black fires as they rage up or are squelched, respectively. And since nobody who is making a map today wants to take ownership of updating the Wilson Fire, it’s just been left in a third state, of “fuck-if-we-know-why-don’t-you-figure-it-out,” which they have arbitrarily decided to color green, in direct contrast to the Google Maps style guide, common sense, and all that is holy.

And if that’s true, that might be understandable–if we were talking about music festivals, or rodeos, or maybe even school closings. But damned if this doesn’t seem like a silly and potentially dangerous way to handle maps that are supposed to be used for potential rescues and evacuations.

As a matter of public safety, and considering how few variants of natural disasters Google would have to deal with, surely Google could do a better job of handling these symbols universally across all variants of its maps, letting us know what these important symbols mean, and how to read these maps with a straightforward legend that’s clear and easy to find.

2 thoughts on “The L.A. Fires Prove It: Google Maps Has No Idea What a Map Legend Is.

  1. Google Maps has just been going downhill since about 2009. Good write up though, I have been equally frustrated by this whole incident and not being able to interpret a map. It might be that this whole thing has come on very suddenly and rather than updating up a bunch of new features, Google is using preexisting tools/icons. That might make sense since a catastrophe is might not be the best time to make an update for users. Either way, it is frustrating. Hopefully they get this sorted soon.

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