Fallbrook’s Red Mountain has been outfitted with eight cameras that will help Cal Fire spot wildfires early and allow for better strategizing when it comes to dealing with fire in a fast-paced situation.
The cameras, which were installed by researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), provide 360-degree visual coverage of the area, giving firefighters an easy way to detect fires in unincorporated parts of San Diego County. Currently, there are 50 live webcams placed strategically throughout the county.
The project, called “FireSight,” is part of the UCSD-based High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN) and has existed for over 10 years.
“Technology has been emerging for the past 15 to 20 years in all industries,” said Cal Fire and San Diego Fire Authority chief Howard Windsor. “It has certainly come a long way in fire service, especially since the advent of putting computers in the fire station for reporting, and web-based application.”
Windsor believes that the use of technology by firefighters has “never been better than it is today.”
“It’s the perfect blending of the academia, public safety and grant dollars that help us to work better under disaster,” said Windsor. “[HPWREN] brings us the assistance we need to be more nimble in the changing world we live in.”
The demand for 24-hour surveillance in rural areas throughout the county surprised Hans-Werner Braun, the UCSD research scientist in charge of the HPWREN project and part of UCSD’s San Diego Supercomputer Center.
“The idea was to provide better environmental conditions for the firefighters during emergency situations. We didn’t expect the great demand for connectivity from firefighters and first responders,” said Braun. “In the last few months, [HPWREN] has been used extensively, and the County of San Diego Board of Supervisors, encouraged by Supervisor Ron Roberts, granted the project $36,000 to add the fixed cameras on Red Mountain and Mount Woodson.” Those areas, it was said, have not been easily monitored before.
“Employing modern technology for early fire detection is a key component of the region’s firefighting capabilities,” said San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts in a recent press release. “The County recognizes the importance of working with university researchers to come up with better solutions for the future, but we also saw the critical and immediate need for more cameras and weather stations now. By augmenting HPWREN’s current network, our county’s first responders gain access to better and faster detection capabilities.”
The continuous footage can allow firefighters to go back and see when a plume of smoke first appears, regardless of the time of day.
“These are fixed cameras; they don’t pan or zoom, so what you see is what you get,” said Braun. “The images coming from the camera are current and made public on our website.”
The cameras on Mount Woodson are at approximately 2,800 feet elevation. The cameras on Red Mountain are mounted at approximately 1,600 feet above sea level. The cameras have a range of approximately 20 miles in the absence of obstacles such as weather-related visibility conditions or higher mountains nearby.
The display system has a resolution of 315 million pixels, and each camera is refreshed with an updated image approximately every two minutes.
While the cameras are being used for monitoring fires, appropriate sensors on the cameras can also allow the network to monitor meteorology, air quality, fuel moisture, and seismic activity.
Braun stated that during the Harris fire in 2007, citizens affected in fire areas were given a “great deal” of information about the fire growth, and were able to evacuate safely.
“Fire service takes into consideration concerns that weren’t there 15 to 20 years ago, such as terrorism,” said Windsor. “Nothing is static, so the new technology is helping us to be more proactive. HPWREN remotely views areas before emergency responders get on the scene.”
Windsor stated that responders use information from the web cameras to help pinpoint the origins of fire. Additionally, commanders on the ground can make solid decisions before getting on the scene of a quickly escalating incident, such as a fire during a Santa Ana wind.
Currently, Cal Fire is testing video streaming from the air traffic controller with hopes of getting a 360-degree view of fires for ground commanders.
“This helps us have better accountability with our resources, which is good for the taxpayers,” said Windsor. “It’s a good decision when it comes to suppressing costs.”
According to Windsor, Cal Fire has already used the data from the web cameras in several incidents, as well as the wireless networking capabilities offered to them by HPWREN.
“We have been referencing HPWREN for a number of years,” said Windsor. “The cameras have given us pretty outstanding coverage in the back country areas, while letting us use the connectivity at the incident command bases. During different circumstances we need to get on the Internet to get information to our command centers. Without the [HPWREN] connectivity, there isn’t always infrastructure built out into the areas we are in. This gives us an opportunity to be more efficient in our business practices.”
Braun stated that the web cameras are only a part of the UCSD project.
“Part of the research project is on wireless networking for the National Science Foundation,” said Braun. “There is a benefit to the research community, educational community and the project adds quite a large scope to the project of business learning and Internet connectivity. We do various kinds of research on the network, which also brings values to the users on the network. The Palomar observatory and earthquake and weather stations are on the network.”
FireSight allows firefighters stationed in the field during wild fires to have data connectivity.
“We have funding for another set of cameras and more wireless connections for more fire stations,” said Braun, who mentioned that an area of Rainbow is being considered for web camera placement. “There has been quite a bit of collaboration to [determine how to] fill in the holes for fire detection, and we very much appreciate the funding from the county.”
Still, with the additional support given to Cal Fire and other emergency responders, Windsor said that residents of rural, unincorporated parts of the county should still be careful to be prepared for emergency situations.
“There is no magic in this. Public education is important, and the reality of living in Southern California is that the chance of having an earthquake or wildfire occur is very likely,” said Windsor. “People must be prepared to take care of themselves for that four to five days when a government has to get organized after a disaster. They must be engaged with the programs we have available, such as CERT. This will let them stand back up, no matter how big the wave [is] that knocks us over.”
To view live footage from the HPWHEN cameras, go to
Joe Naiman contributed to this story.
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