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  • New system lets world monitor California forest fires

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2010
Laura S. Marshall,

RENO, Nev. – When wildfires forced a group of Northern California students from their homes last year, they decided to work to keep the same thing from happening to others.

Ranging in age from 10 to 13 years old, the grade-schoolers came up with the idea for Forest Guard, an early detection system for forest fires that relies on a new 360° solar-powered camera and Wi-Fi technology. The idea won the global First LEGO League Climate Actions competition in Copenhagen, Denmark, in May 2009.

Impressed by the idea, European executives from Sony offered to help the team develop the system, and a prototype was installed at Tahoe City, Calif., for an Internet debut in December 2009 from Copenhagen during the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Forest Guard will use a closed-circuit television system to send pictures live from the forest to the desktops or screen savers of Internet users all over the world. Both professional firefighters and citizen fire-watchers will be able to monitor areas where the potential for fire is high; if they spot a fire, the Internet users can let the pros know right where it is. The intention is to cut down significantly on response time and, in so doing, to save lives and property by warning residents who live in the path of a fire and by deploying resources more wisely. Cutting down on forest-fire carbon emissions is another potential plus for the system.

Graham Kent, director of the University of Nevada’s Seismological Laboratory, has led Forest Guard’s installation, testing and maintenance.

Nevada Seismological Laboratory director Graham Kent presents the new solar-powered Wi-Fi Forest Eye camera system to the Northern California students who developed the novel idea for early detection of forest fires. Photo by Mike Wolterbeek; courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno.

“We’ve been working on a similar system for several years, for scientific research purposes, and are grateful to be able to work with Sony on this prototype and get a system installed in the Tahoe-Reno area,” Kent said. “The network is ideal for real-time data collection and optimizes the use and expense of the system.”

Kent’s team includes Ken Smith of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory, Frank Vernon of the University of California, San Diego, and Geoff Schladow of the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. They also will use the network’s real-time capacity to monitor other environmental systems such as climate, forest fuel moisture, evapo-transpiration, seismic activity and air quality. Research and data collection are high on their list as well.

“This camera has serial number 001,” Kent said. “We’ll be testing and debugging it over the winter in Tahoe City while also doing some interesting science. It’s great to have been able to integrate some design features and functions into the system based on our experiences with the 10-year-old system in San Diego.”

A camera network has been used successfully in Southern California for many years to monitor forest fire areas, but without the social network of citizen fire-watchers. Kent pointed out that the cost of the system is approximately the same as that of one or two homes that could be lost in a catastrophic fire, and that the maintenance of the system for 10 years is equal to about one lost home.

Next summer, a network of the solar-powered Wi-Fi cameras will be placed on mountaintops surrounding Lake Tahoe.

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