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How California is using AI to put out wildfires before they explode



Firefighters need every means possible to put out a fire before it turns into an inferno. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says it has a new tool to fight wildfires before they explode: artificial intelligence.

“I think it’s a game changer… It’s improved our abilities to validate our situational awareness and then respond quickly,” Phillip SeLegue, Cal Fire’s chief of staff for fire intelligence, told CNN .

Deep in the California wilderness of the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County, a fire broke out in the middle of a July night. No firefighters were present in the area, but AI was monitoring and alerting authorities.

“The dispatch center was unaware of the fire,” said Scott Slumpff, intelligence program battalion chief at Cal Fire, who was testing the new technology at the time and received the initial alert.

Cal Fire, in partnership with the University of California San Diego’s Alert California program and its network of more than 1,000 cameras across the state, uses this technology to quickly detect fires.

“The camera went around 360 degrees, identified an anomaly, stopped and zoomed in,” Slumpff explained. He then confirmed it was a fire and immediately dispatched resources. “They managed to keep it in a 10 by 10 (foot) spot in the middle of the forest.”

“The next morning, this fire would have been a significant fire” without AI detection, SeLegue said.

The cameras, generally placed in the mountains to have a higher vantage point, constantly scan their surroundings in 2-minute rotations; The AI ​​looks for any changes which it highlights in a red rectangular box on the screen.

“Once the camera system detects an anomaly, which is a different version of the last image, it reports it,” said Dean Veik, Alert California Fire Department liaison and former firefighter. “He’s mainly looking for smoke.”

The cameras themselves aren’t new: Cal Fire has used them for years to monitor fires. They are also accessible to the public: anyone can watch the network of observation hangars for real-time weather conditions or spot a curious creature like a bald eagle using the tower as a perch.

After detecting smoke, Cal Fire continues to monitor video feeds to have “situational awareness” of a fire – where it is heading and whether it is “encroaching critical infrastructure,” SeLegue said. Law enforcement can even use it to identify suspected arsonists.

Phillip SeLegue, Cal Fire's chief of fire intelligence staff, stands on a San Diego County observation tower.  He says AI won't replace towers but will improve fire suppression efforts.

The pilot program was so successful that Cal Fire expanded the technology in early September to all of its 21 dispatch centers across the state.

“Our goal as an agency is to keep 95% of our fires to 10 acres or less, so this tool increases our ability to ensure that we limit these fires in the incipient phase,” SeLegue said, adding that the cameras can see about 70 miles during the day and about 110 miles at night. “We had many undetected nighttime fires that we were able to put out before a 911 call even came into the command centers. »

Cal Fire says 40% of fires since July 10 were detected by AI before a 911 call was received – and the technology continues to learn and improve.

The system expects changes on the horizon, said Brian Norton of Alert California, who spent 35 years in the fire service. Sometimes it will be smoke from a forest fire. Other times it will be something harmless, like mist or dust.

The trick is teaching the AI ​​to tell the difference.

“The learning part comes in with human intervention to say, ‘It looked like smoke, but it wasn’t smoke; “It was dust,'” Norton told CNN. “Then the next time the camera picks up something, it’ll be less likely to say it’s smoke.”

Bill Angel, a volunteer with the Forest Fire Lookout Association, monitors emerging wildfires.

Traditionally, people working in dispatch centers had to endlessly watch these video feeds looking for “a needle in a haystack,” Slumpff said. “Eye strain” was always a concern, as officials constantly had to analyze hundreds of feeds at a time.

Now, with the help of AI, they spend time focusing on the anomalies the technology detects.

There are also lookout towers throughout the state, some staffed by firefighters, others by volunteers. At the Boucher Hill Lookout Tower in San Diego County, volunteer Bill Angel of the Forest Fire Lookout Association is in his second season monitoring wildfires. His tower is just a few meters from where cameras are positioned on a communications tower.

AI technology has “improved fire searching but it still requires humans,” he said while surveying the vast valley below, often raising his binoculars to his eyes. “If lightning strikes the tower, they are blind but we are here.”

Firefighters agree, confident that this new technology makes a difference and will not threaten human jobs.

“Nothing can replace boots on the ground,” Slumpff said. “We are absolutely capable, in my opinion, of saving lives and property. »

“Fires that you don’t hear about in the news are the biggest hit,” SeLegue said.


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