Among the few bright spots in what has been yet another devastating fire season in Northern California is this: The wildfires offered yet another real-time test of the ALERTWildfire system, an array of state-of-the-art cameras that allow firefighters to discover and locate new fires and make quick decisions about how best to respond.

According to a weekend story in The New York Times, the system performed just as advertised, allowing fire managers a chance to get an early look at blazes as they grew.

The Times story focused on work by Graham Kent, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who runs the ALERTWildfire system. The system has deployed some 350 cameras throughout the West, mostly in California. On the evening of Oct. 23, the Times reported, Kent was texted by a fire captain in Northern California who was concerned about a new fire near Geyserville.

Kent accessed the feed from Geyserville and spun the camera around. (Each of the cameras in the system can be remotely operated and can pan, tilt or zoom as needed.)

Kent saw immediately that the fire manager was right to be concerned: "I knew right away after seeing this almost solar flare of brightness in near infrared that it was going to be a really bad fire," he told the Times.

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And he was right: He was watching the start of the Kincade fire, the state's biggest wildfire thus far this year. By the morning after Kent received that first text, it had burned 10,000 acres. As of Monday, the fire had burned nearly 78,000 acres and was 80% contained. (The fire footage from the cameras that's included with the Times story is mesmerizing.)

The University of Oregon is one of the partners in the ALERTWildfire system, and a handful of the cameras have been installed in Oregon locations. (The University of California San Diego is the other university involved in the program.) But the primary push now, for obvious reasons, is to rapidly install additional cameras in California. Plans are to install 600 more cameras over the next few years. Funding comes from government agencies, nonprofit organizations and utilities.

If you're thinking that the ALERTWildfire system is essentially a high-tech version of fire lookouts, you'd be correct. But those fire lookouts, where a lonely human scanned the horizon for the first signs of smoke, are being phased out for budgetary and safety reasons, and the ALERTWildfire system promises the kind of coverage that lookouts simply are unable to provide. As our fire seasons grow longer and more intense, our hunch is that this system will prove its worth many times over. (mm)

— Corvallis Gazette Times

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