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Artificial Intelligence Is Helping to Spot California Wildfires

Massive amounts of video and image data from mountaintop cameras and satellites is being analyzed by artificial intelligence to spot dangerous wildfires. For decades, this work relied on human lookouts with binoculars.

(TNS) — As 12,000 lightning strikes pummeled the Bay Area this month, igniting hundreds of fires, fire spotters sprang into action.

Their arsenal of tools includes thermal imagery collected by space satellites; real-time feeds from hundreds of mountaintop cameras; a far-flung array of weather stations monitoring temperature, humidity and winds; and artificial intelligence to munch and crunch the vast data troves to pinpoint hot spots.

For decades, wildfires in remote regions were spotted by people in lookout towers who scanned the horizon with binoculars for smoke — a tough and tedious job. They reported potential danger by telephone, carrier pigeon or Morse code signals with a mirror.

Now, fire spotting has gone high tech. And the technology to address it is getting exponentially better and faster, trained by a growing body of data about wildfires. It’s making firefighters more nimble and keeping them safer. The only question is whether silicon-powered progress can keep up with the climate change-fueled flames.

Tech has also made fire spotting more democratic. Anyone can go online to see the satellite and camera images, while interactive maps display the conflagrations’ locations. Footage from some of the mountaintop cameras went viral this month as they transmitted apocalyptic images of the raging flames that ultimately burned them in the CZU Lightning Complex fires.

“It’s Netflix for fire,” said Graham Kent, who runs the system, which has about 550 cameras in California, a number he hopes to double by 2022. The cameras capture a still image every second to make time-lapse videos, using near-infrared technology for nighttime viewing. “They give an intimate sense of what’s going on. There’s a primal sense like we’re still living in caves; everyone fears fire.”

The network of cameras, backed by a consortium of the University of Nevada at Reno, UC San Diego and the University of Oregon, allows authorized personnel such as fire command teams to rotate, pan and zoom to zero in on suspicious plumes of smoke. The AlertWildfire system is adding some mobile cameras — a trailer with a 30-foot tower that can be positioned anywhere it’s needed.

The images from the cameras and satellites, along with footage captured by piloted and unpiloted aircraft, and weather station data, are vital components in the rapidly advancing technology for fire spotting.

The new technology “is helping us fight more-aggressive fires more aggressively with a calculated level of safety,” said Brice Bennett, a spokesman for Cal Fire. “Fire-line commanders utilize intelligence from all these different inputs. Situational awareness is paramount — fully understanding the events unfolding around you, not just what’s directly in front of your face but what will occur in the next 12 hours.”

The “boots on the ground” crews use the detailed data to get information even while they’re en route, he said. The digital maps can show where the hottest spots are, for instance, so they know what areas to avoid and where to construct fire lines.

“We can use this information to understand where fires are spreading, where they’re most active and to get rapid alerts for wildfires,” said Scott Strenfel, manager of meteorology and fire science at PG&E. “It’s pretty exciting with all this technology coming together. The earlier you can spot a fire, the earlier you can take suppression action.”

During fire season, PG&E staffs its new Wildfire Safety Operations Center around the clock. Analysts in the room at the company’s San Francisco headquarters monitor big-screen monitors displaying data-packed maps and information flowing in from a variety of sources.

The company used to spend a couple of million dollars a year on a smoke patrol program. Every afternoon during fire season, seven pilots would fly in set patterns (similar to a lawn-mower’s path) over heavily forested areas in its service territory, looking for smoke. But satellite advances meant it could get similar information for a tenth of the cost — and have continuous coverage, Strenfel said.

Even in a test version last year, the satellite system detected an early-morning grass fire on Mount Diablo in July 2019 about 15 minutes before the first 911 calls came in, he said. PG&E now has systems in place to notify local fire agencies when its technology spots fires.

Technology comes into play after fires as well. “We map burn severity to see how much damage resulted from the fire, so resource management can stabilize the landscape and mitigate hazards like flash floods,” said Brad Quayle, a program manager at the Forest Service’s Geospatial Technology and Applications Center, which uses satellites and other technologies to detect and monitor fire activity.

Technology also helps authorities decide whether and when to evacuate locals.

“A fire is a dynamic situation with high winds, dry fuels, proximity to populations, especially in California,” said Everett Hinkley, national remote sensing program manager at the Forest Service. “We can provide rapid updates to infer the direction and speed of those wildfires to help people calling the evacuation orders.”

Although satellites have been used in fire spotting for about 20 years, a new generation of satellites and onboard tools have dramatically improved their aptitude for the task.

“Weather satellites have thermal channels that can be used for fires, but they’re optimized to look at cloud temperatures (which are) very cold, not for very high temperatures,” said Vincent Ambrosia, associate program manager for wildfires at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. Newer satellites with spectral sensors and advanced optics technology now provide finer spatial resolution and data processing.

There are two types of satellites: Polar orbiter satellites are closer to Earth and provide higher-resolution images, but capture them only twice a day. Geosynchronous or geostationary satellites stay over a specific geographic area, providing images about every five minutes, but must fly about 22,000 miles above the Earth to synchronize with its orbit, so the images are more coarse.

Researchers have lengthy lists of tech improvements they hope to see in the near future.

One is unpiloted aircraft that can stay aloft for months at a time, perhaps 100,000 feet above the ground, “providing persistent surveillance of a fire event, allowing (firefighters) to make real-time decisions,” Ambrosia said. “It’s the same as the resources that support troops on the ground in battle scenarios.”

Quayle likewise said he’d like to see “long endurance, high-altitude platforms that can serve the purpose of a satellite but fly in the atmosphere.”

Several private companies are working on options such as solar-powered aircraft or high-altitude airships like dirigibles, he said, estimating that deployment is between one and five years out.

He’d also like to see satellites built specifically for fire detection, something now being developed in Canada, which is replete with remote, fire-prone forests. “That satellite system is probably five years out from completion and launch,” he said, noting that the rest of the world can share it.

While some have speculated that the smaller drones flown by hobbyists could be deployed, they lack the power and range to fly high enough to usefully spot fires. But their technology, too, could improve over time.

Another future upgrade is for computers to get even better at “reading” the data via improved artificial intelligence, to cut down on false positives. “We need better machine learning to process this data overload, because you can’t put enough analysts in front of screens to handle it all,” Hinkley said.

Despite all the high-tech wizardry, many fires are initially reported through a traditional system: 911 calls. Blazes increasingly occur near populated areas so there are essentially millions of potential spotters on the ground.

“The 911 calls in many places will be the first notification,” Strenfel said.

But calls to 911 can mean a deluge of information without the specifics that firefighters need — so the satellites and cameras come into play to home in on exact locations.

“In cases like we just went through, with the lightning causing 500 fires all at once, and many people calling, that information can be overwhelming,” Strenfel said. “The satellite detection systems (show) where these fires are in real time.”

Kent from AlertWildfire said similar things about his camera network.

When a 911 call comes in, authorities “can turn to a camera and see the ignition phase of that fire,” he said. Cameras can also triangulate a fire’s exact location. Under normal circumstances, they can “see” 20 miles in daytime; 40 miles at night if there aren’t obstacles. But he’s seen fires caught by cameras as far away as 100 miles in the daytime and 160 miles at night.

Sometimes traditional ways reemerge.

Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit recently refurbished two dilapidated lookout towers and now staffs them during fire season with community volunteers.

Armed with a two-way radio, binoculars and an Osborne Fire Finder — a topographic paper map with sighting apertures to help gauge a fire’s distance and location — the volunteers have spotted 85 “smokes” since June 1, with seven of them being first reports, said Diana Swart, a spokeswoman for the unit.

“These human volunteers get up in that tower with their old-fashioned Fire Finders from the early 1900s,” she said. “In these very rural wooded areas, fires otherwise may not be noticed until they get very large. Having a person out there who’s actively looking is key.”

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.