PG&E tests AI cameras to spot wildfires in Northern California

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion via KGO logo
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
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With devastating cycles of wildfires now menacing Northern California, PG&E, is expanding its network of HD cameras.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- With devastating cycles of wildfires now menacing Northern California, PG&E, is expanding its network of cameras, like these that sit on top of Mt. Tam, in Marin County. The utility installed nearly 140 new HD cameras in all, and 46 of those will have an added capability, artificial intelligence.

"And it will alert us if it spots smoke, sends a text message, email messages, and then we can determine based on that location, is it a car fire? Is it a vegetation fire? Is there a threat to the public?" explains PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras.

The AI fire spotting system is made by a South Korean company called Alchera. Earlier this summer, ABC7 profiled a pilot test of the monitoring software at the REDCOM fire center in Sonoma County.

RELATED: Sonoma County experiments with artificial intelligence to spot wildfires

"We received a lot of alerts, within minutes or moments of the actual 911 calls," says executive director KT McNulty.

In several cases, director KT McNulty says the technology was able to send an alert slightly ahead of 911. But an even more significant advantage may be on the horizon. The company is about to launch a beta version of a night vision technology, designed to provide 24/7 surveillance.

"Huge benefit, that's when we need it the most when our populace is asleep, and we don't have eyes out in the hills," says McNulty.

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And in cases of heavy winds downing power lines, or dry lightning strikes, experts say it can be a volatile window for fires. For now, PG&E will only be testing the current version of the AI software with its new cameras. But they say the program is part of a broader commitment to up the utility's fire prevention capabilities.

"And every bit of data helps. And the sooner that we can determine, okay, is this a real threat? Then the safer for everyone," says PG&E's Contreras.

Even with the power of AI added to the system, fire experts still say 911 and the public are often the key line of defense in reporting fires in the minutes after they first break out.