A catastrophic fire could undo decades of protecting Lake Tahoe

College of Science 24/7 fire monitoring camera system unveiled at annual Tahoe Summit

A catastrophic fire could undo decades of protecting Lake Tahoe

College of Science 24/7 fire monitoring camera system unveiled at annual Tahoe Summit

When Sen. Dean Heller, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and California Gov. Jerry Brown all met up on the shores of Lake Tahoe for their annual Tahoe Summit, attention started with protecting the deep, blue waters of the pristine lake. But this year, attention turned quickly to wildfire.

"Lake Tahoe isn't going to be blue if the forests are gone," Graham Kent, director of the University of Nevada, Reno's Nevada Seismological Laboratory, said. "You actually want to keep the Lake Tahoe Basin green - and protected from wildfires."

Heller and several other speakers at the annual Lake Tahoe gathering that brings policy makers, elected officials, scientists and others together to assess the progress on protecting the environment at Tahoe spoke to the need to protect the Tahoe Basin from catastrophic wildfire.

Despite decades of studies, mitigation, regulations and nearly $3 billion of investment, a catastrophic wildfire at Lake Tahoe would devastate the environment and the economy, undoing the decades of work to protect the cold, clear waters and putting the brakes on a thriving tourism industry.

Looking for a solution to wildfires, Kent and his team have piggybacked a series of nine high-definition and  mountaintop cameras onto a portion of the lab's statewide earthquake monitoring network. The 360-degree cameras scan hundreds of square miles of the Tahoe and nearby forests for signs of wildfire. Kent has partnered with firefighting agencies that  use the system to keep a watchful eye on the forests in and around the Tahoe Basin.

The cameras have spotted fires only a few trees in scope from 20 miles and farther, and larger fires at a hundred plus miles at night. These new capabilities have enabled firefighters to mount a rapid response based on early discovery and/or actionable intelligence.

"The fire cameras, and especially the Internet backbone and network that supports it, are a valuable tool for fire officials as well as Tahoe researchers who are studying the lake's environment," Kent said. "Fire agencies have been successfully monitoring the region with our cameras for more than a year now."

The system saves time and money for firefighters, but more importantly, has the potential to stop catastrophic wildfires and the cost to human life, infrastructure and the environment. In June 2007, the Angora Fire burned 3,100 acres of South Lake Tahoe. The cost to fight the fire and property loss totaled approximately $160 million. More recently, in 2014, the King Fire burned more than 97,000 acres in nearby El Dorado County, just over the Sierra crest, with a total cost of close to $150 million.

A map of the 2014 King Fire overlaid onto the Lake Tahoe Basin shows a chilling image: a burn of similar size would engulf Lake Tahoe's entire west and south shore.

"The cost to build and run AlertTahoe for one decade is an additional $2 million," Kent said. "If we get a King Fire here, it not only ruins the Tahoe basin, it also takes down the Carson, Reno and Truckee economies."

Kent has been pitching the system, looking for financial support from both public agencies and the community in a public-private partnership to keep expanding the system with more cameras. The AlertTahoe project has recently joined efforts with the Tahoe Prosperity Center to make this fundraising goal a reality. But besides financial support, the system is designed to get the community involved in spotting fires.

"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 crowd-sourcing fashion," he said. "Early discovery and actionable intelligence is key in quickly knocking down wildfires, and the three-pronged approach we're looking for includes a crowd-sourcing component of the public watching the screens and time-lapse. The third approach is machine vision, having the computer watch for fires for us, 24/7. We already have a pilot-project that looks promising in the works. Once complete, the machine vision system will use computer programs to identify smoke without the aid of observers."

Lightning strikes from thunderstorms this summer struck portions of northern Nevada and ignited several fires in the bi-state Tahoe Basin as well. The fires were identified early-on with the AlertTahoe network, demonstrating the success of the fire camera system.  A similar system funded through the BLM in central Nevada has had huge successes this summer too, highlighting the applicability to multiple environments.

"This is a very exciting paradigm shift in disaster response for the Tahoe Basin and potentially the west coast and ultimately nationally," Kent said. "The work we're doing here - we're looking to take this technology and apply it throughout the west, partnering with University of California, San Diego, which operates a fire camera network in southern California."

U.C. San Diego is currently adopting the Alert interface to give the same opportunities for firefighters and concerned citizens to help discover fires in the southland as Santa Ana fire season spins up.

The public can view the live-feed online, with on-demand time-lapse at the AlertTahoe. During thunderstorms, a lightning overlay map allows viewers to follow lighting strikes, and firefighters can turn the cameras to the area of lightning activity.

When funding becomes available, Kent plans for more than 20 cameras in and around the region, with updated seismological stations near and surrounding the basin - providing a test bed for earthquake early warning, with a complementary fire-camera system with no blind-spots, which could handle three or four fires at once.

The Nevada Seismological Laboratory is a public service department in the University's College of Science.

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