A network of as many as 45 fire surveillance cameras may be coming to Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, and some could be installed before the start of the coming fire season, a fire camera specialist told the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday in San Andreas.
Graham Kent is chief architect of the ALERTWildfire project, a partnership of the University of Nevada-Reno, University of California-San Diego, and the University of Oregon. Kent and others say ALERTWildfire cameras have already provided critical information the fire seasons of 2016 and 2017 on more than 350 fires, including an arson spree in the Lake Tahoe area.
“We have one going up in West Point,” Kent said. “It’s possible to get this out this fire season.”
Asked by The Union Democrat how many cameras ALERTWildfire staff want to see in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, Kent responded, “We are probably looking at something like 15 in each county.”
Funding for the cameras is coming from utility giants like Pacific Gas and Electric Company and San Diego Gas and Electric, Kent said. Utilities have been blamed for sparking some of the costliest and deadliest fires in California history.
“Anything that helps us identify fires and put them out, I’m interested,” Jeff Stone, chief for Central Calaveras Fire & Rescue Protection District, said in an interview outside the Board of Supervisors chambers. “My understanding is the money is there, so the county fire services are interested in this.”
Stone said he’s glad to hear about fire surveillance cameras, but he’d like to hear more about funding for more helicopters and other aircraft for early suppression response to fires in their initial stages.
Kent used a slide presentation on a big screen to show a group of photos headlined “35 critical minutes of the Camp Fire near Paradise, CA” to illustrate how small the fire appeared to be when it first showed up on cameras. In 35 minutes the Camp Fire grew from a wisp of smoke barely visible behind a ridge to a “monster” blaze generating a pyrocumulous column similar to a volcanic eruption, Kent said. The Camp Fire killed more than 80 people and it’s the deadliest fire on record in the Golden State.
“The biggest gain with these cameras is they can help emergency communications centers reduce response times to wildfires,” Kent said.
Sonja Harris and David Harrison, both with Conifer Communications, helped Kent answer questions. Conifer Communications has 15 towers in the Mother Lode, Harris said. Cal Fire has earmarked $5.2 million for cameras, Kent said. Scott McLean, a Sacramento-based spokesperson for Cal Fire, said Tuesday most cameras that are up or being put up have been paid for by grants or donations.
Asked about costs per camera, Kent said equipment and installation can range from $10,000 to $60,000, “depending on whether we use a pre-existing tower/infrastructure or custom build.” Asked how much it costs to maintain and monitor each camera and who runs all that online infrastructure, Kent said “costs to do the big data IT part including AWS hosted website and everything else is roughly $10,000 per camera per year.”
Kent added that ALERTWildfire will be reimbursing Conifer for their service, which includes tower rental, power and data backhaul.
Questions raised by Merita Calaway, District 3 supervisor, and Dennis Mills, District 4 supervisor, indicated placing cameras on Blue Mountain, northeast of Mountain Ranch, and up the Highway 4 corridor, should be top priorities for Calaveras County.
In December, Frank Leschinsky, public sector manager with Volcano Communications Group in Pine Grove, Amador County, and the Amador Fire Safe Council director, said a network totaling as many as five fire cameras was expected to be installed by the end of this month. A camera installation in West Point is taking longer than expected, Kent said.
The ALERTWildfire project grew out of a pilot program called ALERTTahoe that deploys pan-tilt-zoom cameras and microwave networks in the Lake Tahoe area, according to project staff. The initial program was funded through the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at University of Nevada-Reno, the Tahoe Prosperity Center, the Eldorado National Forest, and the USFS Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
A contract with the Nevada Bureau of Land Management expanded the network east into northern Nevada, where the BLM Wildland Fire Camera Project was born, according to ALERTWildfire staff.
In the summers of 2014 through 2016, new contracts with the Oregon-Washington and the Idaho Bureaus of Land Management and with San Diego Gas and Electric provided expansion of cameras and microwave locations. Construction continued this year in Sonoma County, Orange County, and other locations in five states, according to ALERTWildfire staff.
During the fire seasons of 2016 and 2017, ALERTWildfire cameras provided critical information on more than 350 fires, including a dozen in California and an arson spree in Lake Tahoe.
According to Calaveras County staff and ALERTWildfire staff, in late 2017 the deadly Wine Country fires and the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties helped bring into focus the need to quickly expand wildfire camera coverage across the western United States.
It also became clear that building new towers and other infrastructure to cover large areas in a short period of time was not realistic. In early 2018,a new strategy to install cameras on existing third-party microwave networks was adopted by local jurisdictions and municipalities in California and Nevada.
Data from these networks are incorporated into Nevada Seismological Laboratory’s back-end acquisition systems, and presented on a cloud-based website in a straightforward manner, according to ALERTWildfire staff. For firefighters and first responders, it means more cameras more quickly, and better-decision making capabilities.
In December, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, blamed for igniting the 2015 Butte Fire, began helping fund installation of fire surveillance cameras in the same watersheds where the Butte Fire started in Amador County and blew up to become the costliest disaster in Calaveras County records.
The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015, when a gray pine came into contact with a PG&E overhead conductor at 17704 Butte Mountain Road near Charamuga Ranch in Amador County, and caused ignition that started the fire, a California Public Utilities Commission investigation determined.
The fire burned 70,868 acres, destroyed 921 structures including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties, damaged 44 structures and resulted in two civilian fatalities and one injury. It was declared contained Oct. 1, 2015.
For more information online, visit www.alertwildfire.org/about.html.