Rural Wi-Fi Project Improves Wildfire Monitoring in Southern California

Originally intended to extend Internet access to far-flung areas, a collaboration between UC San Diego and San Diego County has been used to monitor and respond to several recent wildfires.

by / October 11, 2018
The Holy Fire as seen from the Santiago Peak north camera in Orange County, Calif., Aug. 9, 2018. Courtesy of HPWREN/UC San Diego.

MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights impactful tech, data, and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at info@metrolabnetwork.org for more information. 

In this installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we explore the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN) based in San Diego County. While initially an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional research and education project with the University of California San Diego (UCSD), HPWREN has since been used to monitor and respond to several recent wildfires in San Diego County.

MetroLab’s Executive Director Ben Levine spoke with Frank Vernon, research geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, and Jerald Coleman, technology manager at the San Diego County Fire Authority, to discuss.

Vertical view of a microwave tower.

Ben Levine: Could you please describe what the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN) is? Who is involved in this effort? 

Frank Vernon: HPWREN is a UCSD project led by the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. It functions as a collaborative, Internet-connected cyberinfrastructure, supporting a high-bandwidth wireless backbone and access data network in San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial counties in areas that are typically not well-served by other technologies. HPWREN has partnered with San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) and the county of San Diego to increase the reach and functionality of the network.

Levine: Can you describe what this network focuses on, how it came to be and what motivated you to address this particular issue?

Vernon: HPWREN was originally funded by the National Science Foundation in 2001 to create wireless Internet connectivity in the backcountry of San Diego County. This was really before the term “Internet of Things” was a concept, and in those days, devices didn’t have IP addresses. You used other mechanisms to communicate with them, but it was clear around the turn of the millennium that everything was going to be an IP device. The basis for writing our NSF proposal was saying, “This is the future.” Let’s start bringing some of this forward, test it out and see how well it works in a remote wireless environment. The other part of the project came about because after demonstrating that we could put Internet communications into remote areas, funding came through from SDG&E in about 2008 to connect all the backcountry fire stations. 

Jerald Coleman: SDG&E established a project called Area Situational Awareness for Public Safety Network (ASAPNet) and purchased the hardware. ASAPNet provides the connection between HPWREN and our backcountry fire stations. You can think of it like cable TV providers. They have a cable that's running down the middle of the street. From the middle of the street, there are wires or connections that go to each of the houses along the street. So the cables down the middle of the street are HPWREN and the wires that go from the middle of the street to the individual houses are ASAPNet. We have about 60 fire stations from several jurisdictions connected to the Internet through HPWREN. The connected fire stations are from the county, CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, and smaller fire protection districts like Borrego Springs, Ramona Municipal Water District and Deer Springs. They're not all part of the county's fire authority, but we wanted to connect these fire stations to the Internet for the benefit of the entire region.

The Holy Fire as seen from the Santiago Peak north camera (date: 8/9/18).

The Holy Fire as seen from the Santiago Peak north camera, Aug. 9, 2018.

Levine: How did San Diego County become involved and how does it continue to support this effort?

Vernon: The original partnership with the county came with the San Diego County sheriffs. We ended up co-locating some of our communications and antennas on their towers. That was the first thing. But then these cameras — with the 2002 Pines Fire and the 2003 Cedar Fire — really started being used by the fire community, so we started working with the county on that level. That wasn’t the original intent of HPWREN, although once you looked at it, it seemed like an obvious use. HPWREN evolved to a situation where it uses four fixed cameras — one each pointing north, east, south and west — on each mountaintop and provides continuous coverage all the time. It takes an image a minute and archives it. You can do time-lapse histories and all sorts of interesting things. In 2014, Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno, created a new wildfire camera pan-tilt-zoom technology (PTZ) now known as ALERTWildfire.org. In the fall of 2017, this PTZ technology was deployed on HPWREN and is known as ALERT-SDGE. The integration of the HPWREN and ALERT-SDGE camera systems paid off during the 2017 Lilac Fire, helping the fire agencies make informed decisions on the fire response.

Coleman: The county recently awarded the project about $430,000. We have plans to add more PTZ cameras to locations and also to add fixed cameras to some mountaintops that don’t have them yet. The funding will also be used to make some upgrades to the communications infrastructure. We need to increase bandwidth because we have increased demands. Back when we first started in 2012 we pretty much needed email and maybe a little bit of Internet access. Things are much different now. It seems as if everyone has at least one device connected to Wi-Fi when they walk into the room. Some enter with multiple smartphones, a tablet, a laptop, etc. The demand for bandwidth is much greater now. 

Big Black Mountain relay site, which supports a link to the HPWREN backbone site on Mt. Woodson. 

Levine: How does the use of HPWREN impact county planning?

Coleman: Well the cameras are more tactical, so for the most part we're watching an event as it’s happening. We typically would get a 911 call before we can even see the puff of smoke on one of the cameras, but once the fire is going, monitoring is a huge thing for us. The dispatch center, CAL FIRE and the county fire authority can all see what's happening on the scene, see which direction the fire is moving, see how quickly it’s growing. Then we can manage resources based on the information we’re seeing. So as soon as a fire is detected, we actually have it projected on a large-screen TV in the CAL FIRE dispatch center — those are the people who are sending firefighters to the scene. 

Levine: What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned during this project? 

Vernon: There have been a couple of major surprises. Originally the cameras were deployed to understand how weather might affect communications connectivity. It turned out that the cameras did not help us with that problem at all, but they were essential in the wildfire monitoring that we’re doing today. Now our focus is making sure the cameras are running properly — that’s one of the core aspects of HPWREN, even though it was never thought of in the beginning. At the start, it was strictly to provide Internet capabilities to remote areas. Of course, that part is still there and it’s very important. It surprises me how much that aspect is appreciated by the county and by CAL FIRE because they need that connectivity to the fire stations. The other interesting thing was that originally we got involved with some of the American Indian reservations in the back part of San Diego County. Some of their people got involved with the early communications projects and they basically took the ideas and built their own network called TDVNet (Tribal Digital Village), which links all the reservations across San Diego County. HPWREN isn’t a part of that, but we helped train some of the initial people which gave them the foundation to build their own network and operate it on their own.

Coleman: I wouldn’t say this is a surprise, but the cooperation is fantastic. The team from UCSD is very responsive. If there is something needed to support a particular incident, they're more than willing to get out there and help us out. We have great cooperation with SDG&E on incidents. They have as much motivation as we do to knock down the fire and they're working right beside us providing resources. We typically have SDG&E representatives working closely with CAL FIRE because we may tell them, “We've got a fire going this way and you've got all these power lines over here, which could be dangerous if the poles burn down or the lines go. Turn off the power here.” They also work to re-establish lines that have been damaged after the fire has passed through the area. The communications infrastructure has also helped facilitate dialog with other fire teams in the area.

CAL FIRE firefighter installing an antenna on a microwave tower to connect a nearby fire station to HPWREN.

Levine: Are there any future plans for HPWREN? 

Coleman: We’re partnering with San Diego Mountain Rescue Team. They are the search and rescue people that work with the sheriff's department. They’re taking a portable connection kit to these relatively remote locations, aiming it at a mountaintop and jumping onto the Internet using HPWREN. Then they can establish a little Wi-Fi broadcast area around that kit. We’re piggybacking on that from the county fire standpoint. There are generally a handful of potential incident command posts, depending on where the fire is in the county — certain places are more conducive to having a camp and a central location for the on-scene commander. So by using these portable kits that let you connect to HPWREN, we can have Internet access at those locations. 

Vernon: We’re going to work in Santa Barbara and Orange counties and expand into other parts of Southern California to give them the same types of capabilities. There’s more geographical spread and trying to identify and incorporate new sensor types that can take advantage of this regional coverage that we have. For instance, we don’t have meteorological sensors and air quality sensors at every point where we have an Internet connection. If you actually look at where the sensors are distributed, they’re heavily in the urban areas, but they’re not distributed from the coasts to the mountaintops to the deserts. From a science perspective, we should have sensors where it’s appropriate for the environment from a spatial scale — countywide or larger.

To see a time-lapse video of the recent the Santiago Peak Holy Fire, click here

About MetroLab: MetroLab Network introduces a new model for bringing data, analytics, and innovation to local government: a network of institutionalized, cross-disciplinary partnerships between cities/counties and their universities. Its membership includes more than 35 such partnerships in the United States, ranging from mid-size cities to global metropolises. These city-university partnerships focus on research, development, and deployment of projects that offer technologically- and analytically-based solutions to challenges facing urban areas including: inequality in income, health, mobility, security and opportunity; aging infrastructure; and environmental sustainability and resiliency. MetroLab was launched as part of the White House’s 2015 Smart Cities Initiative. Learn more at www.metrolabnetwork.org or on Twitter @metrolabnetwork.

Ben Levine Executive Director, MetroLab Network

Ben Levine is the executive director of MetroLab Network. Previously he was a policy adviser at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he was responsible for policy development pertaining to state and local government finance, with a focus on infrastructure policy. He worked closely with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy on the organization and launch of MetroLab Network. Prior to that Ben worked at Morgan Stanley. He is a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.