Fire camera mounted above path of deadly Sonoma County blaze

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A high-tech camera that can see at night and spot wildfires almost as soon as they start was mounted Tuesday on a hill in the Mayacamas Mountains directly overlooking the path of the deadly Tubbs fire that roared from Calistoga into Santa Rosa in 2017.

The $2,600 camera, about the size of a basketball, was installed atop a 17-foot aluminum tower by technicians from three universities collaborating on a program called AlertWildfire. With support from PG&E, the network plans to cover Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, Lake and Marin counties with up to 40 such cameras by the end of March.

Thirteen of the pan-tilt-zoom cameras are already operating in the North Bay, with their images available to emergency dispatchers and to the public at alertwildfire.org.

The broader goal is to establish 200 new cameras statewide this year and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget includes funding for 100 more, said Graham Kent, director of the seismological laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno, that started the program.

“You can’t afford not to,” said Kent, describing the cameras as in indispensable tool for coping with California’s ferocious wildfires, which authorities say are driven by climate change and bound to intensify.

One camera can see 5,000 square miles during the day and up to 20,000 square miles at night using its near-infrared capabilities.

Linked to a network of weather stations and supported by supercomputer fire modeling programs, the system can not only zero in on fire locations — expediting emergency response — but also plot a fire’s course in about 30 seconds, Kent said.

Had the camera installed Tuesday atop at 1,500-foot hill in the Pepperwood Preserve been there the night of Oct. 8, 2017, “you would have known the (Tubbs) fire was going to get to (Highway) 101 in six hours,” he said, describing the inferno’s terrifying 12-mile race from Calistoga west to Santa Rosa. “It got there in five.”

In the wake of Lake County’s catastrophic 2015 fires, Kent said he already knew the North Bay needed a camera alert system. Three days after the Tubbs fire, he called Lisa Micheli, Pepperwood’s president and CEO, for help scouting camera locations.

Cameras are going up on two nearby hilltops in the 3,200-acre preserve off Porter Creek Road, which Micheli called a “perfect fit” for the preserve’s location and conservation science mission.

“This is the kind of technology we want to bring to Sonoma County,” she said Tuesday at the tower on a spot simply named Hill 1524. “There are very few parts of the county where you have this 360-degree view.”

Each camera tower also supports microwave antennas to transmit data to a network at Sonoma State University that will relay it to the seismology lab at Nevada Reno. Solar panels feed batteries that power the freestanding towers.

“It’s a pretty cool project,” said Will Honjas, field operations coordinator for the seismology lab. “We really love to be part of it.”

The crew included technicians from the University of Oregon and UC San Diego, the program’s other partners.

Sonoma Water contributed nearly $500,000 for eight cameras positioned to protect Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest reservoir, which is surrounded on all sides by rugged wildlands with a history of catching fire.

The county agency delivers Russian River water to 600,000 North Bay residents.

Lori Wyatt, project manager for Sonoma Water’s fire camera project, was on Hill 1524 Tuesday, eying the dark scar on the landscape left by the Tubbs fire as it came over the shoulder of Mount St. Helena and sprinted down the Mark West Creek corridor toward Santa Rosa.

“We want to make sure we catch the fires as they come into the (Russian River) watershed,” she said.

The Tubbs fire followed almost the same path as the Hanly fire, which burned to the edge of Santa Rosa in 1964.

Readily visible Tuesday were two small columns of smoke from controlled burns in the Mark West area near Pepperwood. The camera network is designed to help hasten the time and resources needed to alleviate public concern about such prescribed fires, or confirm actual wildfires when they do erupt.

When a resident calls 911 to report smoke from a possible fire, he or she is often unable to give a precise location, Wyatt said. In such cases, fire crews are dispatched to conduct a ground search that can take up precious response time, she said.

With AlertWildfire operating, the dispatcher can turn a camera toward the reported smoke, zoom in and determine what’s going on, Wyatt said. If two cameras can fix on the same spot, the precise ground coordinates can be determined.

Kent said the system can prove its worth by saving the cost of full-scale air and ground searches to find wildfires.

Sonoma County officials were convinced of the system’s value last Oct. 16, when a camera on Geyser Peak pinpointed the location of a blaze on Pocket Ranch Road east of Cloverdale, enabling fire crews, airplanes and a helicopter to hold it to one acre.

“This was a perfect example of how these fire cameras are supposed work,” Aaron Abbott, executive director of REDCOM, the county’s fire dispatch center, said at the time.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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