Calif. utility company backs expansion of fire-watching camera network

The cameras — estimated to cost as much as $700,000 to install — can help responders get a faster understanding of where wildfires are spreading


By JD Morris
The Press Democrat

SONOMA, Calif. — PG&E is paying for nine high-definition cameras to monitor potential wildfires in the North Bay, greatly expanding a nascent network first responders and government leaders already are using to respond to blazes in the region.

California’s largest utility hopes the cameras will be up and running around Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties by the end of the year, a spokeswoman said Monday. The cameras — estimated to cost as much as $700,000 to install and operate for one year — can help first responders get a faster understanding of where wildfires are spreading and how fast they are moving.

The pan-tilt-zoom cameras backed by PG&E will be part of the broad AlertWildfire system, a growing network in California and beyond that provides a real-time eye in the sky for emergency officials. Cameras in the network also feed live images to a public website, alertwildfire.org.

PG&E’s decision to bolster the fledgling North Bay fire camera network comes amid a stream of public criticism and legal challenges over its role in the October wildfires. Cal Fire has said PG&E equipment was responsible for igniting 16 fires that burned across Northern California, though investigators have yet to announce a conclusion about the cause of the most destructive blaze, the Tubbs fire, which leveled swaths of Santa Rosa and surrounding areas.

In addition to helping first responders and government officials, the cameras also will be useful to PG&E staff at the company’s new wildfire safety operations center in San Francisco, said Deanna Contreras, a spokeswoman for the utility.

“This is just more data that our team will be able to use to mitigate wildfire threats,” Contreras said.

PG&E is following the lead of San Diego Gas & Electric, which has partnered with AlertWildfire to provide fire cameras serving San Diego County.

“This is what modern utility companies have to do, given the weather system we have and the vulnerabilities that are out there,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “It’s good for them and it’s good for us. I think it’s a wise move on their part.”

Firefighters already have put two test cameras launched earlier this summer to good use, particularly the one on Mount Konocti in Lake County that was installed during the massive Ranch fire, the state’s largest-ever wildfire. It was fully contained last week after burning seven weeks.

The camera helped calm public fears after maps of the fire perimeter prompted concern about threats to the town of Lucerne on the northeastern shore of Clear Lake, said Cal Fire division chief Ben Nicholls.

“Looking at the operations map, I couldn’t confirm or deny whether or not that was the case,” Nicholls said. “When the camera got online, I was able to see very clearly, and steer the general public towards the cameras ... it hadn’t even crested the top of the ridge above Lucerne.”

Cal Fire hopes the Mount Konocti camera will become permanent. The agency also has plans to install a fire camera on Mount Saint Helena.

Sonoma County supervisors voted last month to spend more than $477,000 on an initial network of eight fire-monitoring cameras. All of those were supposed to be installed by Oct. 1, but the full rollout has been delayed as officials negotiate details among various public agencies and private companies, said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer for the county Water Agency, which is spearheading the project.

Copyright 2018 The Press Democrat

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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