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3 months ago
Can Artificial Intelligence Combat Wildfires? Sonoma County Tests New Technology

 
Originally published in Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2021.

Sonoma County is adding artificial intelligence to its wildfire-fighting arsenal.

The county has entered into an agreement with the South Korean firm Alchera to outfit its network of fire-spotting cameras with software that detects wildfire activity and then alerts authorities. The technology sifts through past and current images of terrain and searches for certain changes, such as flames burning in darkness, or a smoky haze obscuring a tree-lined hillside, according to Chris Godley, the county’s director of emergency management.

But emergency workers will first have to “teach” the system to differentiate between images that show fire smoke, and others that might show clouds, fog, or vapor from geothermal geysers. The software will use feedback from humans to refine its algorithm and will eventually be able to detect fires on its own — or at least that’s what county officials hope.

“It’s kind of like learning how to read,” Godley said. “What letters can I put together to make up a word?”

The county activated the technology Wednesday and received 16 positive reports of smoke — all of which turned out to be permitted burns, he said. Once a seasonal ban on controlled burns goes into effect in April or May, the county plans to ramp up the testing and feedback phase. The hope is that by November, the system will no longer need to be “taught” and can start providing reliable intelligence, Godley said.

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