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AI tech helps Calif. FD spot wildfires

Cameras used by the Ukiah Valley Fire Authority will rely on AI to spot wildfires

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By Justine Frederiksen
The Ukiah Daily Journal

UKIAH, Calif. — Cameras designed to constantly scan the skies for signs of smoke have been deployed in key locations above the Ukiah Valley recently through an agreement between the city of Ukiah, the Ukiah Valley Fire Authority and a Bay Area company called Pano AI.

“I’m really excited to bring this item forward, as this is something we’ve been looking at the last few years,” Doug Hutchinson, UVFA chief, told the Ukiah City Council this summer when the contract with Pano AI was first being considered. “I don’t have to remind anyone what kind of wildfire danger Northern California in particular has faced over the last several years.”

And while Hutchinson explained that there already is “a large series of cameras stationed throughout the West Coast that can be viewed by various observers and dispatch centers, (Pano AI) takes that (technology) a step further through the use of artificial intelligence. (Because while) the other cameras require human intervention to man the cameras and look around, the AI cameras are constantly scanning — I think of it like a radar dish that is constantly spinning and searching, tirelessly, 24/7.”

Once deployed in key locations such as Cow Mountain, Hutchinson said the cameras (two at each location) “scan 360 degrees every 60 seconds, and if they detect something they believe is smoke, they alert the command center for Pano, which is staffed 24/7, and then human intelligence takes over to determine whether they believe a threat exists.”

If it is confirmed that smoke was seen, he said, then staff at Pano can contact the local fire district, where staff there can determine whether or not a controlled burn was planned at that location, and also “tie into other local camera systems,” such as those deployed by Pacific Gas & Electric and Cal Fire.

Noting that Pano’s cameras are already deployed in Sonoma County and in Scotts Valley near Santa Cruz, Hutchinson added that he was particularly impressed that much of the start-up’s staff “come with a boots-on-the-ground firefighting background,” and that their cameras “have a higher ability to see at night,” though they are not technically infra-red.

“Our cameras are near infra-red,” Kat Williams, director of government development, told the City Council during their June 7 meeting, explaining that Pano AI’s detection system is “not only ingesting data from the cameras, but also ingesting Satellite feeds, 911 alerts” and other sources of real-time data.

As for the locations, Hutchinson said sites like Cleland and Cow mountains were ideal because “they enable us to see well into the valley floor,” adding that other sites could be added in the future “as we expand and gain other partners.” He said the four locations chosen for the Ukiah Valley so far are the mountaintops of Laughlin, Sanel, Cleland and one in “north Ukiah off of Orr Springs Road.”

“We like to ask, ‘what are the areas that keep you up at night?’” said Williams when explaining which locations are chosen for the cameras. “And we like to start with three to four stations, which each have two cameras, because if you can see a smoke start from more than one location, we can triangulate where that latitude and longitude is, which is incredibly important for fire authorities — not only to send the right resources to the right location and do it quickly, but to do it safely. Because if we know exactly where that ignition is, we can overlay it on a map and look at a satellite layer and understand what kind of vegetation is there, what water resources are there, what the ingress and egress is, and if we need to do evacuations. All of that intel can be gleaned in the very first moments of a fire if you can triangulate its location.”

When asked to provide more details about the human-staffed dispatch center, Williams said “We call it the PIC, or Pano Intelligence Center,” explaining that while it is “headquartered in San Francisco, (it is staffed by analysts who work remotely while) looking at the feed to determine whether (or not each sighting of possible smoke) actionable,” or whether it was caused by controlled fireworks, or perhaps even “a tractor kicking up dust.”

The City Council then approved having City Manager Sage Sangiacomo negotiate an agreement with Pano AI for a one-year subscription. When asked for the amount of the contract, Deputy City Manager Shannon Riley did not respond, but the agenda staff report for the June 7 meeting lists the expected amount as $140,000 “for all costs of installation and operation for one year.”

In a press release announcing the deployment of the technology this week, Mayor Mari Rodin was quoted as saying: “The city of Ukiah places a high value on innovation, and this fire protection system uses leading-edge technology to help address one of our community’s biggest fears — catastrophic wildfire. I’m proud that we’ve made this important investment in the safety and peace of mind of our friends, neighbors, and businesses.”

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