Fire Detection Camera Project

Jason Weber, Chief, Fire Department

As Northern California enters a potential fourth consecutive year of drought, fire risk in Marin County is at an all-time high. Accurate and early detection of fires has never been more critical to keeping Marin homes and communities safe.

To aid in early detection efforts, the Marin County Fire Department is pleased to announce the installation of high-tech, remote wildfire detection cameras on four critical peaks in Marin. The equipment and software were donated by FIRESafe MARIN, which was able to purchase the $207,000 system thanks to funding from PG&E.

Two cameras supplement the daytime-only volunteer-staffed fire lookouts on Mt. Tamalpais and Mt. Barnabe with 24-hour coverage, and two more cameras were placed on Big Rock Ridge and Point Reyes Hill to expand coverage. The Marin County Department of Public Works’ Communications Division and Information Services and Technology Division handled the installation and public access to images, which are now available.

With six fire stations protecting 251 square miles of unincorporated areas and almost 199,000 acres of State Responsibility Area, the Fire Department is eager to make use of this latest available technology to protect its large jurisdiction. The new camera system provides operators with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data on a fire’s location.

“Marin has a recognized issue with locating fires once they’ve been reported,” Deputy Fire Chief Mark Brown said. “The cameras will be another tool in our tool chest to help locate fires early when they are most controllable.”

The ForestWatch camera system, developed by EnviroVision Solutions, uses mathematical algorithms to analyze imagery of the landscape and detect subtle changes caused by smoke. The system then alerts a human operator at the Fire Department’s Emergency Command Center in Woodacre, and the operator can use system tools to examine the detection. If necessary, the operator can rapidly dispatch a response to the precise location of the fire, which the cameras provide. Moreover — and critical to operating in West Marin — the cameras differentiate smoke from fog.

Response time and location accuracy are critical to suppression efforts, as it is most commonly the first few hours of a wildland fire when the most devastation occurs. The recent October 14 fire in Roy’s Redwoods near San Geronimo burned for several hours before crews could locate it, and fire officials largely attributed its quick containment at four acres to the day’s damp weather.

On warmer days, crews might not be so lucky with unreported and or remote fires. The fire detection cameras will help prevent these fires from getting out of control. West Marin is no stranger to the large-scale damage an out-of-control wildfire can cause; the October 1995 Vision Fire near Inverness burned 12,000 acres and 45 homes.

“By funding this project, we are adding a high-tech element to our efforts to keep Marin’s communities safe,” said FIRESafe MARIN President Mike Swezy.

FIRESafe MARIN is a nonprofit organization with the dual mission of reducing wildland fire hazards and improving fire-safety awareness in Marin. Together with FIRESafe MARIN’s Todd Lando, the Marin County Fire Department and the Department of Public Works Communications Division were instrumental in working with PG&E to secure funds for the project.