A network of 1,000 cameras is watching for Western wildfires—and you can, too
Across the Western United States, there’s a network of cameras streaming images of mountain peaks, coastal communities, quiet suburbs, and thick forests, revealing dramatic sunrises and the occasional wildlife encounter. The 24/7 feeds are free and accessible online, provided with the hope that the public will not only tune in but also look out for signs of smoke or a spark, potentially helping alert authorities about blazes before they pose a threat to communities.
Over the past decade, this ALERTWildfire network has grown from a few cameras around Lake Tahoe to about 1,000 in seven states, as well as some in Australia. Officials will now have an easy-accessible source for information in fire-prone areas. The network often offers multiple angles of wildfires and, more recently, AI can be used to aid in analysis. With a hot, dry summer and high-fire risk forecasted for the region, the system’s operators and partners are in the process of a multi-million dollar expansion in Oregon, and eyeing opportunities in Washington and Colorado, states that have all experienced record-breaking wildfires in recent years.
“You can get that situational awareness, you can look at the wind patterns and see how it’s going in many places–you can look at it from three, four, five, ten different angles, so you kind of can see what’s happening every minute-by-minute,” explains Graham Kent, founder of the ALERTWildfire system.
In 2003, the Cedar Fire burned through Kent’s San Diego neighborhood. What stuck with him the most from the experience was the lack of reliable fire intel he felt was accessible to the public–a common concern of wildfire evacuees and even to the firefighters themselves.
Kent is also the director of University of Nevada, Reno’s seismological laboratory. He had experience in setting up microwave links to collect seismic data from the West. He decided to use his knowledge and network to set up cameras that could be used for monitoring the landscape for fires. The first ones were installed in Lake Tahoe in 2013.
” Until about three firefighters, I think people thought that we were crazy early on,” Kent said.
But today, ALERTWildfire has become a go-to resource for numerous government agencies, first responders, researchers, everyday folks on “Fire Twitter,” and residents in camera-covered regions. It is run by a consortium of three universities, the University of Nevada Reno and the University of California San Diego. There are cameras in all of the states and Washington, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. ALERTWildfire partners with state, county and private utilities to install cameras on existing microwave network infrastructure. The Bureau of Land Management, local governments, utility companies, and other public and private sources are supporting its expansion throughout the region.
“These camera systems are another tool in the decision-maker’s toolbox to improve decision-making based on real or near-real-time information,” a representative from the Forest Service, which also helps fund the initiative, tells Popular Science.
The Forest Service uses the cameras to monitor weather changes and forest conditions, verify smoke reports without the need to deploy any aerial equipment and to help firefighters plan how to respond to wildfires. ALERTWildfire claims its cameras were used to provide “critical information” about more than 1,000 wildfires between 2016 and 2019. Kent claims that cameras are placed based on information from local fire departments. Officials have access to “pan and tilt, zoom or move cameras around” virtually in order to monitor any unfolding events. Kent and his team are responsible for troubleshooting the cameras and keeping them online during wildfires. Some cameras run on solar power while others are powered by generators to avoid them being shut off during power outages.
In recent years, ALERTWildfire added players to this process, including collaboration with machine-learning and artificial intelligence companies. Kent said they are currently working together with Alchera, an AI-powered South Korean company that scans camera feeds for smoke. Last summer, he says the AI issued a warning about the River Fire “within a minute of ignition,” beating the alerts officials received through 911. He quickly clarified that this tech is not being used to replace any other methods of notification but to provide additional verification and insight to firefighters.
“If you have a 911 call [reporting a fire] and an AI hit, or you have a Twitter hit and an AI hit, the fact that you have two hits pretty much tells you that’s a fire, right?” Kent says, offering some examples of ways firefighters might learn of an ignition. “Having two confirmations or more as a firefighter means that you are ready to try to get in there and get the attention it deserves .”
Kent hopes that the cameras will be more useful in assisting residents to understand wildfire risk and provide information to officials.
” We encourage people to create their own fire watch groups,” Kent said. He described a scenario where community members meet on “red flag” days or high-fire-risk days and use the cameras to monitor their surroundings. “It’s about getting any edge we can on fire starts so that we can knock them down. So, instead of feeling hopeless, there is some sense that we can actually make a difference.”
Curious to see some of the camera feeds? Head to ALERTWildfire’s website and select from the drop-down “Regions” menu to choose views from across the West.