Smart Camera Network Provides Valuable Monitoring in Wildfire Zones

As fire dangers increase, municipalities turn to integrated weather, imaging, and landscape data to generate real-time predictive response maps to help firefighters.

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Photo credit: Southern California Edison

The frequency and intensity of wildfires across Northern and Southern California are alarming. Just in 2018, 1.7 million acres in California burned down and hundreds of communities were devastated. Due to the worsening impacts of global climate change, including more severe weather events and drier air conditions, this widespread devastation is predicted to increase exponentially. Most recently the Kincaid fire in Sonoma County, California destroyed more than 77,000 acres and at least 174 homes and necessitated evacuation of hundreds of families.

Unfortunately, the environmental and public health crisis experienced in California isn’t an isolated issue. So first responders and government officials are looking for technology innovation that can help in future firefighting battles. One such solution developed by the University of California San Diego, is a network of wildfire-spotting cameras called ALERTWildfire. It grew from 35 stations to more than 300 in use in October 2019. This successful technological aid already in use in California could be applied by municipal governments around the globe, especially in regions at high-risk for wildfire devastation.

State officials have used ALERTWildfire in combination with other tools such as WIFIRE developed by researchers at the Qualcomm Institute, the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), and the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) department at UC San Diego.

The ALERTWildfire system is a partnership among researchers at the University of California San Diego, the University of Nevada at Reno, and the University of Oregon who collectively developed Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) fire cameras and additional tools to assist firefighters and first responders. The four main goals of the initiative are to: locate where a fire originally ignited; rapidly scale up or down in deployment of resources; track fire activity from ignition to final containment; and help the evacuation process, based on the collection of fire activity data.

In terms of technological specificationsthe system has the following:

IP connectivity with high-bandwidth that enables the cameras to have near-infrared capabilities

Distributed IP system that can be controlled by laptops, desktops, phones, and tablets

Web-access for firefighters and first responders that provides them with direct camera control

Machine learning for early fire detection

Syncs with WIFIRE fire map for predicting future wildfire behavior and sustainability

Time lapse wildfire imaging is available right away.

Saving Lives: A Governmental, Academic, and Tech Partnership

Fire agencies across the state have noted that this technology directly saves lives, and local municipal agencies intend to have 1,000 PTZ camera stations installed by 2021. Ben Nicholls, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) division chief in Sonoma County, stated in a recent interview that these cameras are “worth their weight in gold.”

In 2017 when there were very few of these cameras installed in Washington, Nevada, Oregon, and California, more than 40 people died because wildfires in their community. However, in 2019 there have been zero fatalities from wildfires, which Nicholls says can be connected to the rapidly expanding ALERTWildfire system.

During the Kincaid fire, CAL FIRE officials were able to deploy the system to monitor the fire within 11 minutes of its first ignition in conjunction with incoming data about local humidity and wind conditions. In this case, rapid deployment of technology resulted in zero deaths.

Real-time Environmental Mapping

The large scale, prevalence, and frequency of wildfires mean there’s not a single solution to addressing this environmental and public health crisis. But California state officials are determined to combine the functions and capabilities of multiple tech solutions to drastically decrease the size of devastation in the coming years.

So far ALERTWildfire has been used by local municipalities in tandem with WIFIRE in development at UC San Diego’s Supercomputer Center and mechanical and aerospace engineering department. Ultimately, the goal is to install hundreds more PTZ cameras while also creating a fleet of drones with WIFIRE technology to map out environmental conditions, including temperature, air quality, wind patterns, and humidity, which will provide enough data for predictive wildfire behavior modeling by wildfire prevention agencies and fire departments.

This can occur right as a wildfire has ignited, and potentially stop a wildfire outbreak from occurring. The expansion of this technology across the state also provides the opportunity for city and county officials to have enough predictive wildfire behavior data to make informed and data-driven policy decisions about future housing and commercial zoning. 

Learn more about ALERTWildfire and WIFIRE.

See the full list of ALERTWildfire partners.