Wildfire-watch camera network may launch in Sonoma County this fall

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Starting this fall, a new network of high-tech web cameras could help first responders and government officials in Sonoma County respond more quickly to wildfires and decide how best to deploy their resources when major blazes ignite.

As proposed by the county Water Agency, the project would start as an eight-camera system, mostly located in the north county and aimed at the Lake Sonoma watershed, which could suffer catastrophic damage from a major fire in the area. One of the pan-tilt-zoom cameras would be located on Sonoma Mountain and two would be installed at the Pepperwood Preserve, where they would have eyes on some of the October burn scars.

“It provides a level of situational awareness that is absolutely needed going forward to address the new normal, which are these extreme weather events that drive fires to a different degree,” said Board of Supervisors chairman James Gore. “I’m very excited about this.”

County supervisors are expected to consider approval of the plan, currently estimated to cost as much as $475,000, at their Aug. 7 meeting.

The cameras would in most cases be installed on communication towers and other existing structures, officials said. They’re primarily intended to help emergency responders, dispatchers and government leaders more quickly understand the severity of a fire, where it is spreading and how quickly it is advancing.

If the county moves forward with the initiative, it would become part of a larger network of cameras in other fire-prone areas such as Lake Tahoe and San Diego, which already use the system developed out of the University of Nevada, Reno.

The camera system’s creators hope technological advances will one day enable the devices to often detect the start of wildfires before anyone else does. Already, they do a good job detecting fires caused by lighting strikes, according to Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at UNR.

Kent, who told supervisors about the cameras at a February board meeting, said the technology would have been a big help during the start of October’s fast-moving and devastating firestorm, particularly since the system works best at nighttime.

“A camera system that night would have easily been able to identify the six or seven starts or however many it was,” Kent said. “At least everyone would have been on a common understanding of what it was.”

If supervisors, who are directors of the Water Agency, sign off on the project next month, officials would aim to have them installed through the month of September so they are in place by Oct. 1 — ahead of the one-year anniversary of last year’s fires.

The initial group of cameras would be focused on protecting Lake Sonoma, the reservoir that serves as the largest source of drinking water for more than 600,000 North Bay residents. Located in the forested coast mountains west of Healdsburg, the lake is part of a 130-square-mile watershed that’s particularly vulnerable to wildfires, which could threaten the water supply due to sedimentation, runoff and other potential impacts, officials said.

But the proposed configuration of the eight-camera network would end up covering close to 40 percent of the county, said Jay Jasperse, the Water Agency’s chief engineer. The cameras can see 40 to 60 miles during the day and 100 miles or more at night, weather depending, and they’re typically spaced about 20 miles apart, Kent said.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

And the cameras could be expanded to other areas as well.

“The bigger your network, the better overall, the more robust it is for everybody,” Jasperse said. “Sonoma County Water Agency’s interest would be enhanced if we had more cameras in Mendocino and Napa county and Lake County and Marin County — and then they had the benefit of our cameras, too.”

Water Agency officials have had “some preliminary discussions” about creating a broader North Bay fire camera network, Jasperse said.

The estimated $425,000 to $475,000 price tag for the cameras would fund the project’s creation and its first year of maintenance and operations, according to Jasperse. The Water Agency plans to use its general fund budget to pay for the program.

“It seems well worth it to us,” Jasperse said. “The success that’s been achieved in San Diego and the Tahoe-Truckee (area) is certainly pretty compelling to us.”

About 60 cameras are already installed, many of them focused around the greater Lake Tahoe area and Southern California. Another 25 are scheduled to be installed in various locations in California and the western United States, according to Kent.

Images from the cameras are posted publicly on the website alertwildfire.org, where they are frequently updated and can be viewed as time lapses of varying lengths. The cameras have provided “critical information” for more than 350 fires over the last two years, according to the website.

The Reno seismological laboratory runs the camera program in conjunction with UC San Diego and the University of Oregon. Sonoma State University would help implement the program locally, officials said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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