Installed at Sonoma Raceway, fire-spotting camera will monitor Valley
There was a time when forest fires were first reported by “fire-spotters” who lived alone in tower cabins for weeks on end, keeping an eye on the vast carpet of forests that lay before them. The independent, almost monkish job as fire lookout – Jack Kerouac milked a novel out of his experiences on Desolation Peak in the Cascades, Gary Snyder developed his interest in Buddhism and poetry during his stint – has gradually been phased out in the past decades, and is now almost entirely replaced by cameras, satellites and artificial intelligence.
Since the disastrous fires of 2017, Sonoma County has become a national leader in a fire camera watch system, and now sports a system of 27 remote video cameras, positioned high above the ground in key locations that afford a wide view of the surrounding landscapes. The system has recently been upgraded with an artificial intelligence component that analyzes the video feeds from these cameras for early warning signs of fire – plumes of smoke that suggest their source is burning vegetation, and not maritime fog or the steam from the Geysers hydrothermal power facility near Geyserville.
“We really want to catch the fires as early as possible,” said Sam Wallis, the community alert and warning manager of the county’s Department of Emergency Management. “In populated areas people detect the fires fairly quickly. Our goal is to get to the fire early so we can suppress it before it gets out of hand.”
Just last week, on July 15, the most recent addition to this network was installed 80 feet up a telecommunications tower at the Sonoma Raceway. Russel Holmes, telecommunications manager for the sheriff’s office, said the towers are ideal locations for wildfire cameras, as they are typically located at high elevations and the towers themselves range from 60 to 225 feet, “which means they can typically provide a very commanding view of the surrounding terrain.”
“Additionally,” continued Holmes, “given the remote nature of these locations, and the critical services they provide to public safety, every site maintains a very robust backup power generation system.” Which makes them reliable and keeps them online during most emergency losses of power.
Dustin Mair and Vince Hurst of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s Telecommunications Bureau installed the camera on the top of one of the new towers at Sonoma Raceway. The sky was clear for the midday installation, and the 360-degree panorama that the digital eye could see extended from the southwest corner of the raceway property into the Sonoma Valley and across Schellville and Carneros toward Napa, as well as north up Arnold Drive and to the west to Petaluma, Wallis said.
“We already had camera up in that area; this is giving us another frame of reference we can use,” said Wallis. He was referring to the Sleepy Mountain camera that keeps a northwestward watch over Petaluma, Cotati, south Santa Rosa and up to Sebastopol from its 856-foot perch. “We want to coordinate these images as quickly as possible so we can triangulate and confirm the location of the fire,” said Wallis.
The Sleepy Mountain video feed and many others in the system can be viewed in real time from the website at alertwildfire.org/northbay. The Sonoma Raceway camera just went online there as well, as the Sears Point camera, providing the public with the same view today’s fire engineers see.
The cameras are usually two-megapixel Axis Outdoor Network IP PTZ Camera, which weigh 8.3 pounds and are fitted with a 40-power lens. At Sears Point, it is installed at the 60-foot level of the 80-foot tower, about 308 feet above sea level.
The difference that the new software brings to the video feed is an analytic tool that spots anomalies in the view that might indicate a fire is possible. The Alchera software, from a South Korea-based company that develops algorithms for visual artificial intelligence systems, automatically sends alerts to engineers at the county who then visually inspect the image and, if they agree with the software, forward the alert to Redcom for action. That’s the centralized emergency fire and medical agency that dispatches response to emergency situations within Sonoma County.
How is it working? “We’ve had 68 instances where the cameras have detected a real live fire,” said Wallis. Those fires include controlled burns and permitted burns – in one case, a boat fire at Lake Sonoma was spotted. There have been only four false alerts – those fog banks and Geysers plumes.
“The system is very experimental, the system is still learning,” said Wallis. For now, a human is able to make the determination better than artificial intelligence, usually in 30 seconds or less. As the false positives are incorporated into the Alchera system’s software, the rate of false alerts is expected to fall to almost zero.
“Eventually that engineer is going to be out of work,” Wallis said.
While many of the fires that the cameras spot have already or soon will be called in to 911 by citizens, it’s the fires that start away from residences that are most concerning.
“The sooner we can detect a fire , the sooner we can extinguish it,” said Wallis. He called the addition of the fire cameras “a fabulous addition to our tool kit.”
“In 2017, we really had no fire cameras there at all – I wish we had them for Nuns/Tubbs fire,” said Wallis. He noted that those fires created emergency crises that he did not encounter in two tours of active duty while in the military.
Wallis called his feelings about the county’s fire camera system “cautiously optimistic – I use that term every time we deal with artificial intelligence. It’s another arrow in our quiver. But we are going to remain skeptical and run it through its paces to make sure it works.”