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California firefighters use AI to battle wildfires

Published September 16, 2023 Updated September 16, 2023 Bookmark Bookmark Share WhatsApp Telegram Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

SAN DIEGO — When a wildfire erupted in the middle of a recent California night, it could have been a disaster.

But thanks to a new monitoring system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to scan for danger, firefighters were able to quell the blaze long before it got out of hand.

“It was less than a quarter acre,” Captain Kris Yeary of Cal Fire told AFP.

“Had the AI not alerted us to it, it could have gotten much bigger.” 

Mr Yeary, who is responsible for organising firefighting over an area that includes Mount Laguna, around 65km east of San Diego, sprang into action around 3am on Aug 5 after a call from colleagues at a command center.

Computers watching live feeds from the Cleveland National Forest spotted what their algorithm had been taught to understand was a column of smoke.

Human operators were able to verify the machines were correct and alerted Mr Yeary, whose firefighters quickly extinguished the flames.

“It could have been a devastating fire,” he said.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Artificial intelligence is a rapidly developing field of computing that seeks to mimic human abilities to “think.”

Unlike a traditional computer, which can only produce answers based on the concrete information it has, AI can infer answers, using experience it has gained from similar problems it has seen before — similar to a human being.

Since the end of June, the ALERTCalifornia system has had AI computers “watching” these feeds, and flagging to human operators when they see wisps of smoke that could be a fire — with promising results.

“Our success metric is the fires you never hear about,” says Mr Neal Driscoll, who heads the project for the University of California San Diego.

“We beat 911 calls about 40 per cent of the time. And it’s going to get better.”

The addition of AI has meant each firefighter watching the dozens of feeds they are responsible for now has a helping hand.

When the software believes it detects smoke, it displays a small red rectangle on the screen, and offers a percentage indicating its degree of certainty. 

It is then up to the operator to confirm the seriousness of the alert — and weed out any confusion.

Currently, the system can erroneously flag dust raised by tractors, insects in front of the camera or even a bit of fog.

“When a cloud will go over… it can cast a shadow on the ground and sometimes (the computer) can actually think that that’s possibly smoke,” says Ms Suzann Leininger, an intelligence specialist at Cal Fire. 

The feedback that experts like Ms Leininger give — no, that’s just a bit of weather — is helping the AI to get better at what it does.

But even in its current state, it’s a boon.

“It’s getting us time to react in a faster manner,” says Ms Leininger.

And when you’re talking about fire, time can be everything.

CLIMATE CHANGE

As California grapples with the effects of human-caused climate change, fires are becoming bigger and more destructive.

The state has experienced 18 of its 20 largest wildfires on record in the last two decades.

With terrifying blazes ripping through Europe, Canada and Hawaii this year, the devastating impact of the changing climate is becoming ever-more apparent worldwide.

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