Save Lives and Property With Early Wildfire Detection System

Save Lives and Property With Early Wildfire Detection System

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Network of Fire Sensors and Cameras Could Avoid Disaster in High Hazard Areas

Still reeling from the horrendous wildfires of the summer, many communities and utility companies are looking for ways to detect threats before they become blazing infernos.  Sonoma County, where the disastrous Tubbs Fire burned thousands of homes in Santa Rosa last year, recently announced that it will spend nearly $500,000 on a pilot project of eight high-definition network-based cameras to monitor hillside watershed terrain for future fire dangers.

We should be looking at doing the same in San Carlos, where dense foliage, dry grass and dying trees in the western elevations of our city represent a tinderbox for wildfires. 

Every year, some 10,000 residents in the homes along the ridgeline of Crestview Drive and in Devonshire Canyon worry about the potential threats to their property and personal safety.  All that it takes is a spark from a passing vehicle, a cigarette tossed on the ground, a falling utility pole, or a lightning strike to create a catastrophe.  

Fire that is undetected – such as in the middle of the night or at the bottom of a steep canyon – could quickly spread if high winds are present.  And that could prompt a major emergency. No one can forget the Oakland Hills fire in 1991 that killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 3,500 homes.  And it’s not just the highlands that are at risk, because burning embers launched skyward could land in the flatlands east of the ridge.

Since we are constantly reminded of the extreme fire hazard in our Bay Area hills during the summer and fall heat waves, shouldn’t we be doing something to protect our populous suburban areas from future disaster? 

Already available is a tried-and-true technology -- thermal-imaging cameras that can pinpoint near and far sources of heat.  The cameras are so sensitive that they can even detect heat profiles from birds, mammals and humans.  But these devices can be programmed to specifically target unusual heat anomalies and fires.  They have been installed nationwide at electrical substations, wood chip piles, recycling/reclamation yards and other industrial sites where combustion and overheating are ever-present concerns.

In addition to these stationary camera deployments, fire departments around the country have been using hand-held thermal imaging devices to locate hotspots and flames through dense smoke when firefighters enter burning structures. 

Mounted on utility or telecom poles, as well as on buildings or other structures, the thermal cameras can “see” through smoke, rain, fog and dust, at distances of 1,000 feet or more.  And they are not affected by nighttime darkness.

In the best-case scenario, each thermal imaging camera would be paired with a standard digital camera that provides visual confirmation for firefighters.  One of the leaders in thermal technology, an American company called FLIR, manufactures a unit that combines both imagers.  FLIR and other manufacturers also offer an array of dedicated thermal-only models.  Users can choose different lenses depending on the field of view, and these can range from wide angle (90 degrees) to narrow angle (9 degrees).

The “engine” of any networked camera system is the software. Embedded Logix, a Michigan-based technology company, recently introduced open-platform software that is designed for residential areas.  When a heat source is detected by the camera sensors, the software can issue alert notices via text or email to multiple recipients – including nearby residents as well as the fire department.  Thus, a Neighborhood Watch group that was formed to deter crime could also receive alerts on potential fire dangers, thereby becoming a Neighborhood Fire Watch.

The software sends information on camera location, enables live access to the thermal imaging and provides details on the heat source.  When triggered by an alert, a camera begins recording and the video is stored in the “cloud” (i.e. virtualization), through an Internet-based connection, for future review and reference.   The software settings and management are also cloud-based. Thus, devices such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets and personal computers can all be part of the authorized alert network without requiring individual software installations.

Although a detailed site survey would be needed, one scenario for the Crestview area would be eight camera locations, with costs that could range from $500,000 to $1 million for initial installations.  While utilities might ultimately show interest in supporting such a plan, funding could be made available right now from a $6 million restitution that PG&E paid to the city in connection with the natural gas pipeline issues affecting both San Bruno and San Carlos.  The fine was imposed by regulators from the California Public Utilities Commission, and each city received a $6 million payment last spring.

San Carlos has already committed $4 million, mostly for an upgraded Highway 101 interchange on Holly Street, but $2 million remains to be dispersed through a new nonprofit Community Foundation created by the city government.   A committee is being formed to review proposals and should be meeting in the near future.

Given the fire hazards that persist in our city, year after year, wouldn’t it be appropriate to use money generated from one public safety threat to help offset another public safety threat?   

If you agree that the city should pursue an early-warning fire detection system for our most vulnerable neighborhoods, please add your voice and support to this petition.

-- Ken Castle

For an idea of how thermal cameras can detect wildfires, click on this link to a newscast from San Diego:

And here is a link to an article about the camera project in Sonoma County: