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California Leverages Camera Network to Spot Wildfires

The camera network stems from a project established around Lake Tahoe in 2013 and subsequently expanded throughout California, Nevada and Oregon. It has helped firefighters with information for more than 1,000 fires since 2016.

by Martin Wisckol, The Orange County Register / November 12, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Fire tower lookouts and the loners who manned them long provided a crucial tool for fighting wildfires, but technology has produced a more ubiquitous and efficient alternative: 620 wildfire cameras perched in wilderness areas.

With such fires growing in their frequency, intensity and threat to communities, even the average Joe can call up the ALERTWildfires website and be a fire spotter with access to all the camera feeds. When a fire moves toward homes, residents can see the threat for themselves.

Perhaps more importantly, ALERTWildfires video feeds give firefighters immediate information that allows them to respond more promptly than ever.

"These cameras save critical time by allowing rapid confirmation of 911 calls and accurate location of new fires ... time that would otherwise be spent sending engines to mountaintops, or launching aircraft, to confirm fire ignition and location," said Neal Driscoll, co-director of the ALERTWildfire for California and a geosciences professor at UC San Diego. The school is part of an interstate consortium that designed and operates the program.

The project stems from a wildfire camera network established around Lake Tahoe in 2013 and subsequently expanded throughout California, Nevada and Oregon. It has helped firefighters with information for more than 1,000 fires since 2016, including the recent Silverado and Blue Ridge fires in Southern California, and the Lightning complex fire in northern California.

But the cameras also make it more likely that firefighters are able to attack the flames before they reach the extreme magnitudes of those blazes.

"Every fire starts small. And there's a certain period where we can fight it on the offensive," Driscoll said. "Fifteen or 20 minutes makes a big difference. In the old days — and I mean like a couple years ago — you're 30 minutes behind the game."

The network of California cameras has doubled this year to more than 620, with three to six now being added daily — and a total of 1,000 is expected by 2023.

"I think this is going to be the future," said CAL FIRE Capt. Richard Cordova.

In addition to quickly identifying the location of fires, Cordova said the cameras can be key to decision making, allowing firefighters to immediately assess how much manpower and equipment to send. The system also aids in determining where and how quickly the fire is moving, and when it's appropriate to evacuate specific areas.

SAVING LIVES

Hotter and drier weather, more severe droughts, stronger winds, pine bark beetles and forests full of dead trees all contribute to increasingly extreme fire conditions, Driscoll said. Those are things that cameras can't change.

But the tragic impact of those trends can be.

"Even though the sized of acreage burned this year — 400 million acres — was greater than ever before, the loss of life has been less," Driscoll said, noting that about 30 lives have been lost this year while two years ago it was close to 100.

Beside helping with evacuations, the cameras — often combined with information from satellite cameras — help better understand where firefighters should and shouldn't be, he said.

The cameras, many solar powered, are able to pan, tilt, zoom and perform 360-degree sweeps every two minutes, and provide near-infrared night vision views. On a clear day, a camera can view as much as 60 miles away and at night, 120 miles. There is also a time-lapse function available to both firefighters and the public, allowing a review of what has already transpired.

So far, there are 67 of the cameras in Los Angeles County, 28 in Orange County, 25 in San Bernardino County and 19 in Riverside County.

Electric companies, whose equipment has started hundreds of wildfires in the state since 2013, are integral partners in the program. Southern California Edison, for example, has "installed 161 high-definition cameras that visually cover nearly all of SCE's high fire risk areas" as part of the company's wildfire mitigation plan, according to the Edison's website.

Those cameras cost $10.5 million, with an additional $1.8 million spent annually to maintain them, according to Edison spokesperson Reggie Kumar.

In addition to helping quickly locate fires and their spread, the cameras combine with electric company weather stations to help determine when to shut down power service in order to minimize fire risk, Cordova said.

The cameras are also useful — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — in helping local fire watch groups such as those in Orange County's Modjeska, Silverado and Trabuco canyons, and in the Irvine Ranch Conservancy's wilderness habitat.

The conservancy typically sends staff and volunteers into the wild during red flag warning days, both to keep an eye out for fires and to discourage potential arsonists. But coronavirus restrictions have reduced the pool of volunteers, in part because it's eliminated its ability to do orientation for new volunteers and also because its own camera observation room now has much more limited occupancy. But the ability to monitor high risk areas by computer from one's home has helped compensate for that.

"Because of COVID concerns, this offered us an alternative," said Tony Pointer, manager of Orange County Fire Watch. "In retrospect, it looks like it would have been a good idea anyway."

FIRE SPOTTING TIPS

ALERTWildfire.org allows anyone with Internet to access more the more than 620 camera feeds in California, as well as dozens more in Nevada and Oregon. After selecting a region, you will see an enlargeable map showing camera locations and the territory that the camera covers. After selecting a camera, you get the current video feed with access to time lapse summaries of past feeds.

The website's FAQ explains that if a fire is centered in the frame and zoomed in on, there's a good chance it's already been confirmed.

"(But) a fire start that is not zoomed into and/or centered in the frame has a good chance of being a new start," the site says. If you've spotted a fire, call 911. For more tips on using the cameras, visit ALERTWildfire.org/faq.

The site is also useful for those whose property may be threatened by a wildfire.

"If they figure out where their house is on the map, they can make informed decisions," said Neal Driscoll, co-director of the ALERTWildfire for California.

(c)2020 The Orange County Register, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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