The Rutherford Report: Camera Network Aids in Firefighting Efforts

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“Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”

—Robert Fulghum
Camera Network Aids in Firefighting Efforts

Extinguishing wildfires early keeps them from growing into community-destroying conflagrations, but spotting small fires in time to keep them in check has been a constant challenge for firefighters as well as residents of fire-prone communities.

But that’s changing thanks to ALERTWildfire — a network of state-of-the-art, soccer-ball-size cameras that allow firefighters or anyone with internet access to keep watch over millions of acres in California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

There are 25 ALERTWildfire cameras in San Bernardino County and more than 600 statewide. Most of the state’s cameras are mounted on wireless Internet service provider (WISPs) towers and are funded by partner entities such as SDG&E, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric, CalFire, United States Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

The high-definition cameras can pan, tilt, zoom, and perform 360-degree sweeps about every two minutes with 12 high-definition frames per sweep. The cameras are also equipped with near-infrared night vision capabilities, so they monitor continually.

Local video feeds are broadcast on monitors around the clock at the San Bernardino County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). EOC Responders regularly monitor the cameras to get the lay of the land during large fires.

“It’s a great tool for situational awareness,” San Bernardino County Supervising Emergency Services Officer Michael Ramirez said. “You’re able to see how the fire is moving in real time.”

San Bernardino County Fire Marshall Mike Horton said the video links can play a major role in community risk reduction by enhancing fire officials’ ability to assess risk as well as respond to fires more quickly and with better information.

The camera system can also be used by investigators trying to track down arsonists who start wildfires, he said.

ALERTWildfire is a joint venture between the University of Nevada, Reno; University of California, San Diego; and the University of Oregon that was sparked, in part, by a group of young students in Meadow Vista, CA.

The students, whose community was threatened by fire in 2008, developed a project called Forest Guard that imagined a network of remotely connected cameras to give anyone on the internet the ability to monitor for possible fire activity.

In 2008, their crowd sourcing project earned the Innovative Award at the Global First LEGO League Climate Actions competition in Copenhagen, Denmark.

It also caught the eye of Sony Europe and a scientist who’d lost his San Diego County home to the fast-moving Cedar Fire in 2003.

“It seemed ridiculous that no one warned us (about the Cedar Fire),” Nevada Seismological Laboratory Director Dr. Graham K. Kent said. “This is America. It shouldn’t happen like this.”

Sony Europe designed a prototype camera for the Forest Guard project, and Kent worked to establish a pilot project for with cameras in the Tahoe area.

In 2013, the Nevada Seismological Laboratory (a research arm of the University of Nevada) began deploying even more advanced cameras throughout the Tahoe area.

After a series of wildfires ripped through Northern California in 2017 and the Camp Fire devastated the community of Paradise in 2018, the camera project caught the attention of firefighting agencies as well as utility companies in our State.

“Ever since we haven’t been able to catch our breath,” Kent said.

A button at the top of the main video feed allows viewers to quickly Tweet alerts to @ALERTWildfire when they spot smoke.

In addition to being a useful tool for firefighters, the ALERTWildfire cameras also provide amazing views of mountain and desert landscapes.

Special thanks to Lake Arrowhead resident David Caine for alerting me about this great new firefighting tool.
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