PG&E expands wildfire detection through A.I.-equipped cameras

Despite several days of rain in October, California remains mired in drought conditions. Experts say this raises the specter of more dangerous wildfires. But new technology could mitigate that threat.

The beauty of northern and central California mountain tops now offer another eye-opener. Stationed on some telecommunications equipment is the next line of defense against wildfires.

"PG&E is expanding its wildfire detection capabilities by installing hundreds of these high-definition fire-watch cameras," said Pacific Gas and Electric spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

She said 487 of these cameras span the state. But four in the Bay Area have been outfitted with artificial intelligence software.

The uber-smart cameras not only detect smoke, but can differentiate between types of smoke.

"It rules out false positives faster. It rules out haze or fog or dust. Anything that could be misconstrued as smoke, and it determines that it is smoke," she said.

Beyond safeguarding the utilities equipment, such information can raise awareness of potential disasters. Contreras said that was the case when cameras detected the River Fire in August.

"It’s still in its infancy. I’ve seen a lot of these A.I. technologies trying to determine smoke, and detect it. I haven’t seen anything super successful yet," said Dr. Craig Clements, director of the San Jose State University Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center.

Clements said existing technology is likely better at catching the critical moments before a wildfire erupts into massive flames, than cameras. And weather radar and fuel reduction efforts can gain more traction.

Still, Clements says the A.I. cameras can play a role in safeguarding lives and property.

"The sooner that you can get an ignition identified, the sooner that you can get resources on it," he said. 

Added Contreras, "We wanna use every tool at our disposal. Every piece of technology at our disposal to improve situational awareness. To improve fire detection capabilities."

PG&E officials said the pilot program, funded as part of its wildfire safety mitigation plan, continues through the end of this year. If successful, they’d like to expand to cameras statewide.