The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is using a new high-tech tool to help identify and address potential fires throughout the state. The new AI system monitors video feeds to identify potential smoke and alert firefighters. Since the system was implemented three months ago, it has significantly impacted how quickly potential fires can be addressed.
Cal Fire’s Intel Deputy Chief, Phillip SeLegue, recently went on NBC News to discuss the state’s new AI defense system. Developed in partnership with UC San Diego and ALERTCalifornia, the system monitors video feeds from more than a thousand cameras set up in areas prone to fire risk. The cameras are positioned strategically, often high on towers boasting other detection tools or nearby watch centers where human volunteers already monitor the area for smoke. Well-positioned cameras can see as far as 70 miles and scan for smoke 24/7.
“It’s huge. This is very significant,” Phillip SeLegue told NBC News. “This system doesn’t go to sleep. It’s persistent.”
In addition to monitoring many more cameras than human operators would be capable of and doing so with unwavering attention, the AI is also capable of seeing smoke that is too vague for the human eye to detect. The AI frequently reports smoke to firefighters before any 911 calls are made. As reported by NBC News, there were 40 such occasions in the month of October alone. Cal Fire has stated that they have used this system to quickly respond to potential fires and prevent them from growing.
The goal, according to SeLegue, is to ensure that such fires never grow to a newsworthy scale. “Those fires you never hear about, you never read about, you don’t see on TV. They’re not in the headlines. They’re not the Camp Fire,” SeLegue said, referencing one of the most extreme fire incidents in California’s history. “That’s the value of this system. Because it could have prevented a fire like that.”
This AI system, one of TIME magazine’s 2023 inventions of the year, is not meant to replace human firewatchers. Cal Fire regards it as a valuable tool to help them and a tool they hope will be used in other places as well. Caitlin Scully of UCSD and ALERTCalifornia told NBC News, “We’ve spoken with people in Australia—we’ve spoken with people in Hawaii—to help teach them more about what a network of cameras like ours can do.” They believe the AI system can prevent or give advance warnings for fires like the recent Maui fire, which became one of the deadliest in US history.
As wildfires have become more common and more extreme in recent decades, a trend which is largely predicted to continue, innovations like Cal Fire’s new AI system will become increasingly important. The AI in use by Cal Fire has been implemented in all 21 of the department’s command centers and is improving through use. Thanks to training data, the AI is becoming more accurate and more capable of detecting smoke and alerting firefighters. The significant, rapid results it demonstrates mean that technology like this could become much more commonplace quickly.