Hunting fires with cameras

By David Jacobson and Ross Stein, Temblor

Fires in Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Rosa have burned more the 170,000 acres and forced over 20,000 people to evacuate. (Photo from: Wired)


Since Sunday evening, terrible fires have swept across Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Rosa, leaving 23 people dead, over 3,500 buildings destroyed, 170,000 acres burned, and forcing the evacuation of over 20,000 people. This inferno has turned what was once the heart of wine country to ash. Despite the fact that there are over 8,000 state and local firefighters battling the blaze, because of warm, dry winds, the firefighters have been unable to keep up. Furthermore, because of these high winds, and the speed at which the flames spread, the focus is more on saving lives, rather than fighting the fire. Only when the winds subside, will crews be able to contain the fires, which in Napa is only 3% contained. This means that only 3% of the fire’s perimeter is established.

Because of the havoc these fires are causing to tens of thousands of Californians, we talked with Dr. Graham Kent, Nevada State Seismologist, Director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory, and Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, about what he is doing to promote fire safety around Lake Tahoe and Nevada.


“Rather than fires hunting us, we should hunt them”

In 2013, through the Nevada Seismological Laboratory, Drs. Kent and Ken Smith (Assoc. Director, NSL) launched AlertTahoe, a one-of-a-kind fire camera system. HD IP-capable pan-tilt-zoom cameras placed throughout the region on high points and key locations, stream real-time imagery to firefighters, emergency management, and the public. By doing this, it has allowed for early detection of fires, which has helped prevent large-scale spreading. Early on, they also joined forces with the Bureau of Land Management to expand their camera network throughout Nevada.

Despite the fact that Dr. Kent is a seismologist, he has personal reasons for wanting increased fire safety. “While I was at UCSD, my house was burned over, and my colleague Frank Vernon’s house was destroyed, in the Cedar Fire in 2003. I thought, ‘Why aren’t we using cameras to more interactively monitor fires 24/7?’ Rather than fires hunting us, we should hunt them. So far, we have provided assistance on 198 fires in 2017, 108 in 2016 and 25 in 2015.”

The Cedar Fire in 2003 prompted Dr. Kent to wonder how we could better monitor fires to hopefully prevent large-scale tragedies.(Photo from: The San Diego Union-Tribune)


The fire telemetry is providing a backbone for the seismic network

When AlertTahoe first started, it was built upon an emergency information platform that was already in place for earthquake monitoring and response. However, as AlertTahoe and the BLM Wildland Fire Camera Programs have grown, and the need for more robust technology has increased, the tables have turned. “Early on, we used the seismic telemetry for the cameras. But now, the fire-fighting telemetry is providing a backbone for the seismic network. That’s because the cameras need emergency-grade networking; cell and/or fiber-optic networks alone are unlikely resilient enough to provide adequate service during large fires (as demonstrated in the Napa fires), or perhaps even during great earthquakes or foreshock-main shock sequences. So we rely on our private microwave telemetry grid as the primary transport layer, with fiber and cellular as secondary and tertiary modes of backup. This is also what Earthquake Early Warning will need, so it positions multi-hazard monitoring as the likely future of seismic networks as it provides greater resiliency and more partners.” In fact, fire cameras essentially pay for themselves quickly helping provided a business model for sustainability through time.

This picture shows the installation of one of the AlertTahoe cameras for use in increased fire monitoring and safety. This system relies on microwave telemetry, which is also what earthquake early warning will need, meaning the systems will be able to piggy-back off one another. (Photo from: Dr. Graham Kent)


Night vision is key

In order to detect fires at all times, especially at night, Dr. Kent said that the cameras in place are much more sophisticated than standard videos cameras. “Our HD cameras use visible spectrum and near-infrared. This makes it ten times easier to detect fires at night, when ignitions might otherwise be missed, than during the daytime.” In the picture below, a fire detected at night by one of the cameras is shown. The ability for a fire to be detected early allows emergency services to act as quickly as possible, and hopefully prevent its spread. More importantly, it allows Fire Management Officers to scale resources properly, either up or down, depending on the situation at hand. It also provides early and on-going situational awareness to the public during fires, which was lacking this past week in Napa, Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and surrounding communities.

This figure shows how one of the AlertTahoe cameras can, in real-time, detect a lighting –strike fire (see bulls-eye on map) and display its location to firefighters, emergency management, and the public. This early detection and situational awareness can be vital in preventing a fire from spreading.


Future expansion

Because of the success AlertTahoe and BLM fire camera programs have had in the region, Drs. Kent and Smith are expanding beyond their region. “With funding from the Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, Tahoe Prosperity Center and other partners), we are expanding farther into California, and beginning expansion into Oregon, and Idaho, with our partners at UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Oregon.” This should hopefully allow more communities to have increased fire safety, situational awareness and prevent many fires from getting out of control.



Personal communication with Dr. Graham Kent