California's next governor hopes to get the jump on fires by expanding the state's high-tech early warning camera system

Key Points
  • California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom's high-tech plan to fight wildfires, which he outlined during the campaign, is now getting renewed attention, with the state facing longer and more devastating fire seasons.
  • Some experts have called the project a "game-changer."
  • PG&E, the parent company of the Pacific Gas & Electric utility unit, is expected to become a major player in the early warning camera expansion, CNBC has learned.
Residences leveled by the wildfire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Thursday the wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise is now 40 percent contained, up from 30 percent Wednesday morning. 
Noah Berger | AP

California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom's high-tech plan to fight wildfires, which he outlined during the campaign, is now getting renewed attention, with the state facing longer and more devastating fire seasons.

Some experts have called the project — a camera network that gives an early warning of wildfires in forests and other high-fire areas — a "game-changer."

PG&E, the parent company of the Pacific Gas & Electric utility unit, is expected to become a major player in the early warning camera expansion, CNBC has learned. Public attention has focused in recent days on PG&E infrastructure as a possible source of the current Camp Fire in Butte County.

While the cause of the Camp Fire remains under investigation, PG&E reported an "electric incident" just before the blaze is believed to have started. As of Thursday evening, an estimated 9,700 homes have been destroyed, 63 deaths have been reported and more than 630 people are unaccounted for. PG&E previously was blamed for at least 16 wildfires in last year's fire siege in the North Bay.

During the campaign, Newsom touted the value of tech solutions for wildfires as the danger from a year-round fire season and drought-parched land grew. This includes artificial intelligence as well as early warning infrared cameras around the state that can spot wildfires and enable quick response by firefighters.

View from Axis HD early-warning fire camera on Santiago Peak East in Orange County, California during the Holy fire Aug. 8, 2018.

The early warning fire camera network exists today, but with fewer than 80 of the infrared cameras statewide. They have already proven their worth by allowing fire managers and others to spot blazes early to keep them from spreading. The number of cameras on the network is expected to grow more than sixfold over the next four years and cover thousands of square miles of fire-prone areas, including forests and rangelands.

PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado tells CNBC the utility has a goal of having 600 cameras by 2022, covering roughly 90 percent of its service territory. The San Francisco-based utility already has funded some of the camera technology in the North Bay region.

PG&E's camera system is a collaboration with several academic organizations, including the University of California San Diego and the University of Nevada-Reno. It is part of the West Coast's AlertWildfire.org site, which features live video, time-lapse and pan-tilt-zoom function cameras that can be controlled by fire managers and other key response personnel.

View of a high-definition wildfire watch camera in San Diego County.

"My estimate is that it will reduce the damages by tenfold," said former California Gov. Gray Davis. "It will dramatically reduce the lives lost and damage cost caused by these fires."

Davis said the other things authorities need to work on is improving evacuation systems and how to alert people to wildfire threats. Davis said his wife has a sister-in-law who lost a house in the Paradise blaze and another family member who barely made it out of town as the fire took its toll.

The remains of burnt down homes and vechicles resulting from the Woolsey Fire are seen on Busch Drive in Malibu, California on November 13, 2018.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

Southern California Edison told CNBC this week it has installed fire-monitoring cameras in Orange County and plans to put more across its service territory in Southern California. The unit of Edison International is also under scrutiny for its possible role in connection with another major wildfire, the deadly Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The blaze has been blamed for at least three deaths and the loss of hundreds of homes.

Edison last weekend submitted a safety incident report to the state regulator regarding the Woolsey Fire. The cause of the fire remains under investigation but there are reports Edison's equipment may have malfunctioned near the start of the blaze.

"Fire has become the most pressing hazard faced by Californians," said Neal Driscoll, professor of geoscience and geophysics at Scripps Oceanography in San Diego and co-leader of the AlertWildfire site.

"The plan is we're probably going to have about 100 new cameras in before the end of this year," he said.

Driscoll said the ultimate goal is to have hundreds of the early warning cameras around the state. He said the technology also can be useful to look at the impacts of fires on landscapes and to spot areas that can be subject to erosion, mudslides and other risks after blazes.

California doesn't have any specific legislative requirement for the early warning fire cameras in the nearly 30 fire-related bills Gov. Jerry Brown signed in September to help deal with the state's wildfire challenges. However, one of the new laws — state Senate Bill 901 — requires electric utilities to create a new wildfire mitigation and safety plan and submit the plan for approval to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Newsom, who is California's current lieutenant governor and will take the full reins of power in Sacramento in early January, is well known to have a keen interest in technology. Sources say he's spoken to executives of some of the utilities as well as some artificial intelligence experts about how to use high-tech more to combat wildfire threats. He declined a request for comment for this story.

"Fires are becoming more frequent and more intense, and fire season is getting longer — sometimes stretching for most of the year," Newsom told the Los Angeles Times in September. "This has to be a top priority for the next governor, and our state needs a comprehensive strategy to protect Californians."

The state also is said to be considering using its own satellite in two to three years to help with wildfire detection and response efforts. NASA satellites already are helping in tracking smoke and performing other roles during fire disasters, according to officials.

The fire cameras were originally installed at locations where seismologists had put equipment to monitor earthquakes. In doing so, scientists realized there was extra bandwidth available on the sites, so they added high-definition cameras.

"We had plenty of bandwidth," Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Lab in Reno and one of the chief architects of the AlertWildfire camera network.

Kent said cameras aren't the only effort being used to address the wildfire threat. There's also fire modeling, weather stations, the prepositioning of fire equipment, as well as utilities taking more proactive steps to turn off electrical grids during extreme fire danger conditions.

"There's lots of things going on that can be helpful on those really bad days," he said. "So we play a role with the cameras, no doubt. But there's more than that."

The data from the early warning fire cameras in California and several other Western states is sent to the Amazon Web Services cloud. The public can look at the video, and sometimes they are the first to spot fires. Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment.

Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric currently has 16 of the early warning fire cameras installed in its highest fire-risk areas, including inland mountain and foothill areas, and is looking at expanding them into coastal canyons, where fires can start.

"I can't speak highly enough about these cameras, and it really was an easy decision to make to invest in them," said Caroline Winn, chief operating officer for SDG&E. "It really has been a game-changer in terms of raising our situational awareness and helping us to mitigate the risk of wildfires."

Last December, Winn said the San Diego area had "some of the worst conditions that we'd seen in terms of Santa Ana winds" in the north county area and a fire broke out along one of the freeways. She said the cameras helped the utility to quickly determine the location of the blaze and alert fire personnel.

The high-definition cameras can zoom in on terrain to identify the source of fires and on a clear day can see up to 70 miles away.

"In a way they are like the modern [version] of what used to be a lookout," said Jonathan Cox, a division chief with Cal Fire. "There used to be staff lookouts on mountain tops across the forested areas. A lot of these areas now have early detection cameras and sense a change in landscape and alert authorities."

According to Cox, the cameras are used by Cal Fire's command centers and can be valuable in getting fire resources to the right area. "Also, if someone has trouble describing where a fire is, they can look on cameras and see where smoke might be," he said.

Cal Fire and some local fire agencies in the state also are starting to do more nighttime aerial firefighting with helicopters. The early detection infrared fire cameras can spot fires both day and night.

"Our goal is to have an aerial asset over any fire in California within 20 minutes," said Cox. "Right now all our assets are still staffed because of the weather."