As fall approaches, bringing strong winds to California’s dry landscape, a coalition of universities, public safety agencies and utility companies is building a network of cameras in high fire risk areas like the foothills, coastal mountains and the rangelands of Nevada.
ALERTWildfire began in 2013 when the University of Nevada, Reno installed several cameras around Lake Tahoe with the support of the Tahoe Prosperity Center and federal lands management officials.
The project quickly grew to include UC San Diego and the University of Oregon, enabling more cameras to be installed across the West.
Since then, members of the project have placed more than 300 cameras in California alone. They hope to add at least a hundred more by the end of the season.
Graham Kent of UNR compares this stage of the project to the arcade game whack-a-mole, because members of the network are rushing to fill in the gaps where there are no cameras yet.
“Luckily, going into this fall we have a lot more cameras out and there are fewer areas with very little coverage,” he said. “All this stuff’s gonna take two to three years to build out, everywhere.”
ALERTWildfire allows citizens and public safety officials to quickly determine where a fire is and how it’s behaving. That means firefighters can use resources efficiently to put out a fire in its early stages, and residents can determine when to evacuate.
The cameras provide live images around the clock, which first responders and residents can monitor through the ALERTWildfire site. That means when someone calls to report smoke, officials can check all the cameras in the area to figure out if it’s a real threat or just a false alarm — something that used to mean deploying crews relying on personnel in the field to relay what they saw.
“In the old days, a few years ago, it was basically a guess,” Kent said. “You might have a lookout tower with somebody who’s experienced with binoculars. But that was always a conversation, they could never see it.”
But now, command staff can see a developing fire for themselves and even watch a timelapse video of its behavior, so they get a better sense of what resources they need to send, whether it’s ground crews, fire engines or air tankers.
Kent says the big advantage of ALERTWildfire is it helps crews pinpoint a fire’s location and respond quickly before it gets out of control.
“Now everybody has the ability, within about 20 seconds, to see the fire. You can timelapse it, so you know it’s fire behavior immediately. And that’s the game changer.”
Kent says so far this year, ALERTWildfire helped Cal Fire and local firefighters stop the Mountain Fire in its tracks near Redding before it could see the kind of explosive growth that made last year’s Carr Fire so destructive.
Kent says crews will work around the clock before the end of the fire season to add cameras in areas of the state not already covered, like Fresno and Yosemite.
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