As the climate shifts, extreme weather is becoming more common. The rise in both the number and severity of wildfires represents one of the most dangerous consequences of this shift. The numbers are staggering: research published by the University of California’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute notes that the average area burned by wildfires annually has risen roughly 1,200 percent since the 1970s, and three of the top five years for burned acreage in the United States have occurred since 2015. In California alone, 15 of the 20 most destructive fires in the state’s history have happened since 2015. The trend is both alarming and dangerous, and local, state, and federal governments are all searching for solutions.
Wildfires are unavoidable, even under ideal conditions. Chief Jay Teague, of Four Mile Fire and Protection in Florissant, CO, estimated that even when a burn ban is in effect, fire crews on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands can expect to hand out more than two dozen violations for illegal campfires in an average weekend. He further estimates that half a dozen of those hot campfire sites might have the potential to spark larger blazes. Ultimately, awareness campaigns and fines can only mitigate the problem, not solve it. It simply is not possible to prevent every wildfire, which means the solution is a matter of management. Fortunately, modern technology can help. Today’s cameras and sensors can detect wildfires when they are still in their earliest stages, allowing emergency responders to respond quickly and minimize the danger to lives, property, and the environment.
The Devastating Cost
Wildfires routinely destroy thousands of U.S. homes each year. More than 18,000 homes were destroyed during the particularly devastating 2018 wildfire season alone. That year, the Camp Fire caused more than $10 billion in damages—with the Woolsey Fire not far behind, at $4.4 in billion damages. The Camp and Woolsey Fires were two of the three most damaging fires in the history of the United States—and both occurred in the same year. This was not an isolated incident, either: in 2017, the Tubbs Fire and the Atlas Fire caused $9.2 billion and $3.2 billion in damages, rounding out the top four. Two more firsts from 2017 cracked the top ten, along with three from 2020. It’s a problem that is not going away—it is only getting worse.
Correspondingly, the cost of fire suppression is also rising. Resources for the Future tracks a steady upward trend since the mid-1980s, which reached its high point in 2018 with more than $3 billion spent fighting the aforementioned fires. While there are peaks and valleys, the cost of fire suppression now regularly tops $2 billion annually—more than double what the U.S. was spending in the 1980s and 90s. As fires become more common and more difficult to control, the cost of managing them will also continue to rise. Unless, that is, more effective preventative measures are widely embraced. In the western U.S., the ALERTWildfire project has demonstrated the potential value of today’s highly intelligent solutions, setting a clear example for other areas regularly threatened by wildfires.
The ALERTWildfire Project
ALERTWildfire was an initiative based upon the success of an earlier pilot program known as AlertTahoe. That pilot focused specifically on the Lake Tahoe region, where the forest was seeded with modern pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras connected to a microwave network. The cameras were designed to watch for and identify ignition points and alert local fire stations before the fires could spread. The initiative also included a social media component to help capture public attention. By making the streaming video easily accessible, AlertTahoe allowed everyday citizens to help keep an eye on the forest and ensure that no warning signs were missed. This pilot program lasted four years.
Following the success of the AlertTahoe program, the University of Nevada, Reno, University of California San Diego, and University of Oregon formed a consortium that planned to build upon the project and expand its scope. ALERTWildfire was designed to reimagine what a modern day “fire tower” should look like. Instead of solitary towers located at high vantage points and staffed with human observers, ALERTWildfire placed lookout stations at key locations throughout six states. Each location is outfitted with advanced cameras positioned at different angles, allowing them to not only detect the signs of a wildfire, but determine its exact location to be relayed to emergency personnel in the field. Like AlertTahoe, ALERTWildfire includes a social component, with its live feeds available via a public website for citizens to access and follow.
The most important element of the initiative—in fact, the one that made it possible in the first place—was the advanced capabilities of modern cameras. High-quality video is essential (the cameras need a clear view of the environment, after all), but so too is the ability to automatically detect and flag anomalous visuals. Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and its subsets, machine learning and deep learning, have made it possible to train cameras to accurately identify things like plumes of smoke, even at great distances. PTZ capabilities can allow those cameras to zero in on any anomalies, providing clear images capable of confirming fires as many as 70 miles away. Modern cameras are also capable of operating in extremely low light, meaning that they can remain effective even at night. Furthermore, cameras like those involved in the ALERTWildfire project can be hardened against the elements, keeping sensitive equipment sheltered from wind, water, heat, and even seismic activity. For cameras designed as a line of defense against wildfires, such protections are essential.
What happens when a potential wildfire is spotted? To start, responders use different camera placements to triangulate the location of the fire and quickly dispatch emergency services. In dozens of cases, this has allowed emergency responders to prevent potentially dangerous fires from burning out of control. In the past, firefighters would need to send an engine to assess the potential danger of a fire before determining which resources might be appropriate to dispatch. Unfortunately, even reaching the site of a fire can take time, and any delay on the ground represents more time that the fire can continue to burn. Today’s technology allows fire chiefs to make the necessary decisions within seconds—and without leaving the fire station.
Because of the live video available on the ALERTWildfire website, fire chiefs can also remain apprised of the changing situation on the ground, often directing additional resources to a fire before the first responders can even ask for support. Live video also allows citizens to monitor the action themselves and, in the event that a fire does break containment, determine whether they may be in its path. And by integrating weather data such as humidity, temperature, and wind speed and direction, observers can help predetermine potential problem areas before danger strikes.
The ALERTWildfire program has had benefits that go beyond firefighting, and weather data plays a significant role. A large deployment of cameras spanning vast areas of the wilderness has obvious benefits—such as allowing other emergency responders to check flight conditions before attempting to airlift a patient. Even everyday citizens often access the website to track things like road conditions, snowstorm activity, and more. While ALERTWildfire remains focused on preventing fires, the team behind it acknowledges that its side benefits are undeniable.
What’s more, the success of the ALERTWildfire program has not gone unnoticed. Although ALERTWildfire was initially conceived as a regional program designed to fight fires across the American west, the team is already looking at proposals to expand its scope to other areas of the United States—and the world. In fact, a pilot program is already underway in Australia, an area whose wildfire problems rival even those of California. As the climate continues to heat up, dealing with wildfires will only become more difficult, making fire spotting and containment solutions more important than ever. Fortunately, the technology powering the ALERTWildfire program has provided renewed reasons for optimism.
Looking to the Future
Technology is always improving. Camera quality will continue to improve, processers will become even faster, and deep learning capabilities will allow analytics to become even more accurate in their recognition of smoke, fire, and other indicators. The ALERTWildfire initiative has been highly successful—and it will only get better from here. As the solutions that power ALERTWildfire become more advanced, they will only grow smarter and more accurate, increasing their reliability and putting firefighters in an optimal position to assess conditions on the ground and do their jobs more effectively.
Cameras and other surveillance devices are often thought of primarily as security tools, but as the technology behind them has improved, their applications have grown. The cameras deployed as part of ALERTWildfire have helped keep the citizens of six different states safe, limiting the damage caused by dangerous wildfires and keeping people and property out of danger. Applications like fire spotting highlight the unique ways in which modern camera deployments can be used to benefit communities—and as the problem of extreme weather continues to grow more dire, more municipalities should start thinking outside the box.