Sunday, February 10, 2019
written 2 February 2019
published 10 February 2019
In 2009, a group of six elementary school students from Meadow Vista, California, near Auburn, won the Innovate Award at the Children's Climate Action in Copenhagen, Denmark. Their idea was to place wirelessly connected cameras in the forest to enable early wildfire detection. The group, aided by the University of Nevada Seismological Laboratory and Sony Europe, installed a single demonstration camera at Lake Tahoe in 2010. Within a few years, this evolved into a system called ALERTTahoe, which contracted with the Nevada Bureau of Land Management to expand the network eastward into northern Nevada.
In the summers of 2014-16, new contracts with the Oregon, Washington, and Idaho Bureaus of Land Management and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE), allowed further expansion of fire cameras and microwave locations. Now a third generation system called ALERTWildfire, the consortium of University of Nevada Reno, University of California San Diego, and University of Oregon, has installed cameras in 100 locations throughout California and Nevada.
Most fires are reported as 911 calls. ALERTWildfire's array of internet accessed Pan-Tilt-Zoom high definition video cameras with infrared capacity and associated software help firefighters and first responders quickly confirm and accurately locate the fire. Playback displays the growth and scope of the fire, allowing quick and appropriate response of fire-fighting resources. Software allows video access from any platform, including cellphones, so every responder, including the ground crews, can monitor the fire behavior, as it is contained, and eventually extinguished. During firestorms, enhanced awareness of the overall situation helps evacuation planning. In areas where camera arrays have been installed, the incidence of large fires has plummeted.
In 2017, the devastating North Bay Complex and Thomas fires emphasized the need to quickly expand coverage across the western US. Deploying new equipment is time consuming, requiring tower construction, accompanying solar array and battery pack, power management electronics, and installation of the camera and the radios needed for internet communication. In 2018 the decision was made to install cameras on existing third-party microwave networks, building regional coverage more quickly. These "towers of opportunity", owned by utilities, state and county services, and other private point-to-point communications systems, already have a tower, power, and internet connection, so outfitting them as fire camera sites is a matter of hanging the camera and plugging into the existing internet router. Sites like these cover 50%-80% of the desired range, with the potential to allow one hundred or more cameras to be installed in a year.
Even simple installations are expensive to maintain, and it is estimated it will take 1000 sites to adequately cover California. However, the devastation of the last two fire seasons has galvanized powerful resources. Based on good results for SDG&E, PG&E contracted to fund installation and maintenance of 600 cameras over the next 3 years, despite the recent bankruptcy filing. The State of California has committed to installing several hundred cameras each year. During the 2018 fire season, construction expanded throughout existing microwave networks, installing new sites in Sonoma and Orange County, and other locations throughout five states. ALERTWildfire is currently in discussion with Mendocino county for installation of more than 10 sites this summer.
Video is incredibly data intensive, so extensive planning went into managing this "big data" volume. Each camera can be viewed real-time by the public. Certified first responders can steer cameras to respond to specific fires, and view speeded up replays. The video files are available for a period of time, and then taken offline, decimated, and stored as long-term archives. The cloud-based website is designed to be viewed across all platforms, handling over a million simultaneous viewers without crashing
The public has access to this expanding system, bringing to reality the dream of a socially engaged population in the fight against wildfire. Concerned volunteers could monitor the cameras in their region during red flag weather, speeding up fire detection. At exactly the time we need this kind of system due to the expanding climate crisis, the technical capacity is available. For further information and access to the current cameras, go to www.alertwildfire.org.