California has seen an explosion of record-breaking wildfires. More than 10 million acres burned in 2020, doubling the 4.7 million acres charred in 2019. Among those 2020 fires, the Bobcat Fire in the Angeles National Forest destroyed 171 structures and scorched more than 115,000 acres. The likely cause? Tree branches falling onto power lines.
And the December 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties killed two people and led to massive mudflows resulting in at least 21 deaths.
And the trend is predicted to continue into 2021.
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This is why crews recently gathered for a controlled burn to test a new system that promises to detect fires along power lines early, before they've spread beyond control. That device, according to Jack McCall with Lindsey FireSense, is the FIREBird wildfire detection system.
"We recognized that it would be really helpful if the utility had a device that they could mount along their power lines...if they could detect fires shortly after they start," said McCall.
Firefighters with Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino County and Confire put it to work in an open field in Grand Terrace.
"It's a sensor, actually it's a whole bunch of different sensors and a whole bunch of different algorithms that run in the device that is intended to mount on a utility pole but it can also mount on a building, on a street light," said McCall.
McCall says when flames are detected, the device will send an alert to a cellphone, with images of the fire, the surrounding area and location details.
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"We can detect a fire as small as 3 by 3 feet so about 10 square feet and report on it within a minute or two," said McCall. "That would give firefighters a maximum of ability to respond to a fire while it's still small rather than after it's grown to a larger extent."
And after mandatory power shutdowns during red flag warnings, McCall says those same sensors and cameras could help utility crews determine whether it's safe to power up the lines.
Both the San Bernardino County and Rancho Cucamonga Fire Departments will be piloting the FIREBird devices this summer. The devices are set to be installed in August. Also, other agencies along the West Coast are eyeing the FIREBird as one possible solution to the state's wildfire crisis.
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