Firefighters in eight California counties are using fire-detection cameras atop high peaks that operate day and night.
(TNS) - Firefighters in eight California counties, including Marin and Santa Clara, have a new tool for detecting wildfires. They are using fire-detection cameras atop high peaks that operate day and night.
The cameras scan the countryside and are designed to alert emergency command centers when smoke is spotted. After four years of drought, fire danger is at at all-time high, and spotting small fires before they become big ones is of critical importance.
“Early detection is vital,” said Mark Brown, deputy chief of the Marin County Fire Department.
“We have a high level of confidence in them,’’ said Mike Giannini, a Marin battalion chief who works with the cameras.
The cameras, which were installed as the result of a grant from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., supplement the traditional role of human fire lookouts, staffed either by professional firefighters or trained volunteers.
“The cameras look at remote areas where it is difficult to cover,” said Division Chief Jim Campbell of the Santa Clara County office of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.
Both the Marin County Fire Department and the state’s Santa Clara office have huge areas of responsibility around some of the most exposed and expensive country in the state.
While Marin’s towns and cities have their own fire departments, the county fire department is responsible for 251 square miles of unincorporated territory — an area more than five times the size of San Francisco.
The county fire department’s area includes heavily wooded land just outside the city limits of Mill Valley, all the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, and the land rolling away to the northwest all the way to the Sonoma County line.
All of it is covered by timber, dry brush and slopes of highly inflammable dry grass. “It’s hot and dry out there,” said Giannini, the Marin battalion chief.
Marin has not had a major wildfire for nearly 10 years. The last one was started by a smoldering campfire left behind on Mount Vision in the Point Reyes National Seashore by high school boys in the fall of 1995. It burned for three days, blackened 12,000 acres and destroyed 45 homes near Inverness.
Marin County Fire uses volunteer lookouts stationed atop 2,571-foot Mount Tamalpais and 1,466-foot Mount Barnabe near Lagunitas in West Marin. But the detection cameras are also mounted on Tamalpais and Barnabe, on Point Reyes Hill near Inverness, and on 1,895-foot Big Rock Ridge between Novato and San Rafael.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection keeps a staffed lookout on Mount Hamilton, near San Jose, but also has the new cameras mounted on the 4,360-foot mountain. Cameras are also on 3,787-foot Loma Prieta west of Morgan Hill and a hill near the Lexington Basin, at the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley.
Traditionally, staffed fire lookouts have been a mainstay of protection against wildland fires. “The cameras supplement them,” said Todd Lando, executive director of Firesafe Marin, a nonprofit agency that helps coordinate fire prevention efforts in Marin.
But, Lando said, the lookouts can provide extra detail that the cameras might miss, along with local knowledge of landmarks and the terrain. And the command center can get a better sense of the fire’s behavior from the lookout than from a camera.
Other fire detection cameras — a total of 21 — have been installed in Calaveras, Humboldt, El Dorado, Napa, Siskiyou and Butte counties.
The ForestWatch camera system was developed by EnviroVision Solutions, an Oregon firm, and uses conventional cameras, connected with software that can detect changes in the scene and can alert command center personnel.
Views from the Marin cameras can be seen at http://bit.ly/1DxGXEe.
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