ALERTWildfire A 21st century firespotting system

Firefighters use ALERTWildfire cameras to monitor conditions, put the brakes on potential catastrophic wildfires. Video by Damian Gordon and Lucy Walker.


By Mike Wolterbeek

As fire hazard builds through the summer, ALERTWildfire, a network of mountaintop cameras that helps fire managers spot and monitor fires over large swaths of land, has been on a frenzied pace to reach its goal of adding 300 cameras to the network in the western U.S. by the end of 2019. In the past three years the network has been involved with nearly 900 fires.

So far this year, ALERTWildfire crews installed more than 180 new cameras in hazardous fire regions, especially near the forest/urban interface. What started as a pilot program, ALERTTahoe, to protect the Tahoe Basin from catastrophic wildfire, now spans Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, with the majority of cameras in Nevada and California.

“This spring we installed 80 cameras in two months in critical fire areas of California, and now we’re at about 180 new cameras, but we need more,” Graham Kent, director of the ALERTWildfire networks, said. “That work continues with installations and repairs from a heavy winter with record snows and winds hitting our mountaintop sites.”

The 21st century firespotting technology gives firefighters a birds-eye view of the surrounding landscape, able to spot fires day and night to provide valuable intel that can reduce response times and help fire managers deploy resources to where they are needed most during a wildfire.

The old way of doing business, putting people on top of a mountain to look for fires, might still work to a good degree, but this new technology approah is tough to beat.

“We can see second by second what’s happening 24/7/365,” Kent said. The old way of doing business, putting people on top of a mountain to look for fires, might still work to a good degree, but this new technological approach is tough to beat.”

The system features high-definition pan-tilt-zoom cameras that rotate 360 degrees, giving real-time information around the clock using near-infrared technology, all coupled with private microwave networks and internet that give firefighters valuable information about the fires. Cameras can see from 40 to 60 miles during the day and 80 to 100 miles or more at night.

“Firefighters and managers get a crystal-clear view of the wildfire battlespace, important because it’s like an additional set of eyes, which makes their job safer,” Kent said.

The cameras allow firefighters to reduce time to get on top of fires, for example with a 911 phone call – a mistake can be made on location of the fire, delaying response time.

“The cameras can confirm the location and intensity,” Kent said. “They can decide whether to send more resources – planes, helicopters, ground crews. It helps them to understand critical behavior, so they can see where it’s going. If a fire escapes, it helps the public understand if they have to leave – so it helps protect lives.”

Fire officials are able to control the cameras remotely from their computers or phones and track controlled burns around the Tahoe Basin and elsewhere.

Fire officials are able to control the cameras remotely from their computers or phones and track controlled burns around the Tahoe basin and elsewhere.They are a critical help in spotting wildfires as early as possible, so fire crews can respond and assign resources before the fire is out of control.

“The true functionality of the ALERTWildfire network is realized when the cameras are deployed in clusters, as it allows for confirmation of 911 calls, situational awareness for first responders and triangulation to determine the fire location,” said Neal Driscoll, geosciences professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego and co-director of the project. 

“The camera network is another tool in the toolbox for firefighting managers. Not only do they use it for early detection and confirmation of fire reports, they use it to help mobilize and distribute resources for the firefighting effort,” Kent said.

ALERTTahoe prototype network

It all began with an idea in 2009 with a high school student team project called Forest Guard which won the Innovative Award at the Children’s Climate Change competition in Copenhagen. The Forest Guard team leader Heidi Buck and six of the Meadow Vista, California students joined the seismology lab and Sony Europe to deploy a prototype system in 2010.

The students’ idea was to seed the forest with cameras that were connected wirelessly to enable early wildfire detection. Perhaps, their most innovative contribution was the added ingredient of social media to engage the larger public to stand guard over the forest, or "Forest Guard".

Kent and the seismo team helped the Forest Guard group with technology, equipment and installation for a custom-made SONY 360 degree camera installed at Tahoe’s north shore. Having lived through a catastrophic wildfire in southern California, the idea struck a chord for Kent.

Looking at a live view and seeing the flames coming toward yur house would help make the decision for you.

“Not knowing if we should stay in our house or evacuate added more stress to the situation,” he said. “Looking at a live view and seeing the flames coming toward your house would help make the decision for you.”

The installation of the newest and final of 11 planned cameras for the ALERTTahoe fire camera network is completed, and the camera went live on Wednesday, July 31, realizing the goal of placing high-tech cameras on mountaintops ringing the Lake Tahoe Basin and surrounding forests and communities to help firefighters spot and track wildfires.

“It’s truly satisfying to have met this goal. It’s taken several years, thousands of hours of work from our team at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Nevada Seismological Lab, countless hours of fundraising by the Tahoe Prosperity Center and great collaborations with fire districts and federal and state land agencies,” Graham Kent, director of the Seismological Lab and the creator of the network, said. “It’s been a great success.”

From playing cat and mouse with an arsonist who set more than 30 fires around South Lake Tahoe day and night for almost three months – and catching all of the fires before they grew out of control – to lightning strikes and forest fires, the 11 camera ALERTTahoe network has been used by firefighting managers in helping stop 56 fires since it began in 2013 with a lone camera on the north shore of the majestic mile-high lake.

A decade after the Forest Guard experiment – with crucial fundraising support from the Tahoe Prosperity Center, the University of Nevada, Reno, the Eldorado National Forest and the USFS Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit – the third generation of the system has been installed around the greater Lake Tahoe region. The system is growing throughout the West with mountaintop cameras overlooking forests, rangeland and especially the wildland/urban interface where large populations live in forested and wooded terrain.

ALERTWildfire is truly the 21st century firespotting solution. Previous generations of fire camera systems used analog cameras; they weren’t distributed in strategic locations; and the data was private – so it didn’t allow the public to participate.

“To understand the situational awareness from their cars, using their phones – this is a system of the future,” Kent said. “Firefighters can move the cameras from anywhere – this put us above the rest (of the other systems) and allowed the functionality needed for it to be effective.”

Devastating fires are the new normal

The most destructive fire in California history – in the 2018 we had two of those in eight months.

’The most destructive fire in California history’ – in 2018 we had two of those in eight months, and in between: the Martin Fire, the most destructive in Nevada history – and then the Tubbs Fire and the Camp Fire in 13 months, the most deadly in history,” Kent said. “18,000 structures lost in a few days – it’s the new normal, and it’s not acceptable.”

The 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California’s town of Paradise destroyed 18,804 structures and killed 85 people, becoming the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California to date.

In 2017 the Carr Fire in Redding, California burned 229,651 acres in Shasta and Trinity Counties from July 28 to August 30 before it was 100% contained. The Carr Fire destroyed at least 1,604 structures while damaging 277 others, and it is now the seventh most destructive fire in California history as well as the seventh-largest wildfire recorded in modern California history. Six people died in the inferno, four of the deaths were attributed to the rare fire-generated vortex, called a ‘firenado.’ The swirl of winds smoke and ash rose to 17,000 feet.

Also in 2016, the Wall Fire was the first of four major destructive fires in Butte County. The fire burned 6,033 acres and destroyed 98 homes. It preceded the Ponderosa, La Porte and Cherokee fires in Butte County the same year. Combined, the fires destroyed 114 homes.

In the Lilac Fire at the end of 2017, 4,100 acres burned in San Diego County. An RV stalled on the side of road and caught fire. Within 35 seconds, the ALERTWildfire camera was pointed in that direction, and fire managers saw wisps of smoke.

“They looked at all the other cameras in the area, saw no fires and put all the resources into the fire that was starting to blow up,” Kent said. “Textbook use of the ALERTWildfire network.”

In the south end of the state, the Thomas Fire burned 281,893 acres in 2017, spreading fast due to high winds and unusually dry weather in December. The Thomas Fire destroyed at least 1,063 structures and damaged 280 others, costing more than $2.2 billion in damages, including $230 million in suppression costs. As of August 2018, the Thomas Fire is California's eighth-most destructive wildfire.

The Woolsey Fire in 2018 burned 96,949 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, killing three people, destroying 1643 structures and prompting the evacuation of 295,000 people.

“Three days after the Woolsey Fire, two more fire starts were both knocked down immediately – so it works,” he said.

Network expansion

The fast-growing network would not be possible without the support of elected officials, endorsing the many partnerships and collaborations with public land use agencies, utility companies, communications companies and of course fire agencies – 46 partnerships in all to date. The expansion began with two key partnerships: U.C. San Diego and University of Oregon.

The Nevada Seismological Laboratory has partnered on many research projects with U.C. San Diego and University of Oregon on earthquake-related issues. From U.C. San Diego, Driscoll has spearheaded the massive expansion into key fire hazard areas of California. From the University of Oregon, Doug Toomey has spearheaded expansion into Oregon and been a key ally with Driscoll and Kent for the expansion into the areas of northern California hit hard by forest and wildland fires in the past few years.

The consortium of three universities and their seismology experts has created eleven distinct geographic camera systems spanning five states: Nevada, Tahoe Basin, North Coast, Shasta-Modoc, North Bay, Inland Empire, SouthEastBay, Sierra-Foothills, Central Coast, LA-Orange and San Diego.

“Sure, this was developed by seismologists, by geophysicists – which seems curious but not really,” Kent said. “We bring back data to the lab all the time in real time looking for earthquakes with seismographs spread out through the state. It just made sense to use the communication and internet network we had in place and put out fire cameras. Then we developed a software suite that allows firefighters to go out and hunt for them and confirm them.”

After a few years of preparation, ALERTWildfire started in 2013 with one camera near Lake Tahoe. In two to three years the network had located cameras around Tahoe’s mountaintops and expanded to central Nevada with the Nevada Bureau of Land Management with great success.

In the fall of 2017, San Diego Gas & Electric supported the installation of 15 cameras in San Diego’s most fire prone areas of the county.

We jumped into San Diego county and were immediately involved with essentially stoped what could have been a billion dollar fire

In 2017 we jumped into San Diego County and were immediately involved with essentially stopping what could have been a billion dollar fire,” he said. “U.C. San Diego joined and 16 cameras were funded through San Diego Gas and Electric, which played a pivotal role in helping first responders knock down the Lilac Fire (during the worst fire conditions in San Diego County history) – it was a high wind, Santa Ana knock down.”

The potential billion-dollar fire, 2018’s Holy Fire burned 23,000 acres in the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County. The Orange County Fire Authority used the Southern California Edison-funded ALERTWildfire cameras to monitor the fire. The cameras had been installed on Santiago Peak just three months before the Holy Fire started. Orange County Fire was able to use the cameras to help respond to the blaze, and stop the fire from becoming much larger and potentially catastrophic for the communities near Lake Elsinore.

In the North Bay region, 30 cameras have been installed in collaboration with Sonoma County and Pacific Gas and Electric after the devastating and horrific fires that ravaged California’s famed wine country and other regions of the northern region of the state. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, acting as the directors of the Sonoma County Water Agency, approved $422,000 to install the fire-camera pilot project in the Lake Sonoma watershed.

“Fast forward to August 14: California has a total of 222 cameras,” Kent said. “By next week there will be about 190 new in California with 230 total. It also brings the total ALERTWildfire cameras to 265 across five states. Nevada is in second place with 28 cameras. We should hit 200 new California cameras by Sept. 1 and with a little luck, 300 new in California by year’s end. With all of the new cameras throughout the network, nearly 1,000 fires have benefitted from ALERTWildfire since its inception.”

Early on in Nevada, the BLM embraced the ALERTWildfire concept and was a huge supporter. They established the network throughout the mountains and rangelands from Austin to the Nevada border to the north and from the Sierra to the west and the White Mountains to the east.

Nevada BLM funded their first mountaintop cameras to keep watch over sagebrush and forests in sensitive habitats from 10,000-foot-high Jacks Peak between Elko and Owyhee; 6500-foot-elevation Midas Peak, about 40 miles north of Battle Mountain; 7,500-foot Callaghan Peak north of Austin near the Iowa Canyon Reservoir; and Fairview Peak south of Highway 50 and about 30 miles southeast of Fallon near Sand Mountain.

What started as a four-camera system has extended to 21 cameras covering an area stretching from central Nevada to the northern border and as far east as Wheeler Peak – with six new camera in the last year.

“With our extensive partnerships, we’ve figured out how to install dozens of cameras in a single month,” Kent said. “Our goal of 300 new fire cameras by year’s end in California looks like it could become a reality. Besides California, our efforts to scale up in other states are underway.”

Get in the game; be a wildfire spotter

Battling the “new normal” requires innovative approaches to ensure that large destructive wildfires are a rare occurrence.

The ALERTWildfire network of early detection fire cameras has been successful in helping firefighters reduce response times to wildfires. In many cases, this response time can be further reduced through public participation by using the ALERTWildfire public web portal to scan cameras, especially during red flag (high wind) days when every minute counts. ALERTWildfire is the 21st century fire tower.

The public interface can be used by anyone, at any time, to look for fires in a crowdsourcing fashion

“The beauty of this system is that not only can fire service personnel look for indications of fire, but the public interface can be used by anyone, at any time, to look for fires in a crowdsourcing fashion,” Kent said. “The more eyes the better. While only fire agencies can move the cameras with active pan-tilt-zoom functionality, the public can observe the real-time views as well as the time-lapse functions with a 15-minute, 30-minute and 6-hour time-lapse utility built into the webpage viewer.”

In a new approach, in Orange County a group of more than 100 citizens, known as Orange County Fire Watch, have volunteered to watch ALERTWildfire cameras during fire season.

Any member of the public can access the camera views on the ALERTWildfire webite and help spot fires.

Multi-hazard monitoring network

In addition to seismographs and cameras, the system installations can be used for recording and reporting extreme weather conditions. Two such installations already exist, one at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, the other at Mt. Rose Ski Resort. While each tower has the capability of becoming an all hazard monitoring or weather station, the mountain tops at other ski areas would be a next step – with camera installations already at the tops of Heavenly Ski Resort, Homewood Ski Resort, Diamond Peak Ski Resort, Alpine Meadows Ski Resort and Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort.

The wilderness network includes 25 fire cameras along the Sierra crest from as far south as Mammoth Lakes up to BLM lands in northern Nevada.

The same interoperability can be applied to the entire ALERTWildfire network, as appropriate and could be used for transmitting seismic, environmental and climate data, in addition to the live-streaming high-definition images for wildfires.

At Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, since October 2016, the science team that includes the University of Nevada, Reno’s Nevada State Climate Office has been observing and recording air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, barometric pressure, precipitation, snow depth, water content and snow surface temperature and net solar radiation automatically at three Sugar Bowl Resort sites.

About Graham Kent:

Graham Kent has been Director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno since 2009. He attended San Diego State University, where he studied geophysics and graduated Valedictorian of the Class of 1985. Thereafter, he entered graduate school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography receiving his doctorate in 1992.

After a 4-year-long appointment at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Graham returned to Scripps to continue his work in geophysics, with an emphasis toward seismic studies, ranging from magma chambers beneath mid-ocean ridges to fault hazards and tsunami at Lake Tahoe. In 2009, Graham moved to Nevada, where he helped the lab move toward the Internet of Things (IOT) approach to rebuilding the seismic network, and more recently, leading the design and build out of the ALERTWildfire camera network.

He is also involved with the Great Nevada ShakeOut earthquake drill and earthquake early warning in California, while setting the stage for adoption in Nevada.