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High-tech fire cameras to make Napa County debut

Glass Fire

Smoke rises over a vineyard as the Glass Fire burns Sept. 28, 2020 near Calistoga. Napa County is deploying high-tech fire detection cameras to try to help prevent future mega-fires.

Three high-tech fire detection cameras are slated to debut in Napa County on Friday, adding an extra layer of potential prevention with wildfire season at its height.

One is located on Atlas Peak east of the city of Napa, one at Clover Flat Landfill southeast of Calistoga and one on Diamond Mountain southwest of Calistoga. They are designed to provide early alerts for wildfires and cover much of Napa Valley.

The artificial intelligence-based IQ FireWatch system can detect fires both visually and through heat disturbances. A third party is to monitor the information and alert Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit Emergency Command Center of potential wildfires.

“Early detection is the best defense with these types of active fire calls,” Napa County Fire Chief Jason Martin said.

It remains to be seen whether the system will be a game-changer through the end of fire season. The system is getting a kind of test run as the county ponders future options.

“Now, knock on wood, we (hopefully) don’t have an incident and it’s inconclusive,” Martin said. “Or we do have an incident and we’re able to keep it small because of early intervention.”

The Board of Supervisors on Aug. 24 agreed to spend $6,000 per camera per month for the three high-tech fire cameras installed by Illumination Technologies California. The term is until the end of December, though the cameras can be turned off and not paid for if the rainy season arrives sooner, a county report said.

Martin didn’t portray the three high-tech cameras as a cure-all for megafires. Rather, he depicted them as another tool along with such things as stepped-up fuel management and the water-dropping helicopter that was based at Napa County airport in early June.

These cameras could be only a starting point for early fire detection efforts. The county Board of Supervisors is looking at installing a more comprehensive system that could cover about 90% of the county.

What technology might be available is still to be determined, county Public Works Director Steven Lederer told the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 14.

“It could end up being cameras,” Lederer said. “It could be a satellite system. It could be drones. It could be other things I am not even thinking about.”

The three cameras were installed and recording video during last year's fire season, but they were not yet hooked up to the monitoring system, so they couldn't alert firefighters to flames in real-time.

One of the cameras, the one at Clover Flat, captured the opening moments of the devastating Glass Fire, which broke out on Sept. 27, 2020. While the camera was not hooked to the monitoring system yet, the footage it captured was later used by investigators to rule out as a cause of the fire a malfunction in an electric fence around a vineyard, which had been an early suspect. Investigators have not been able to determine what did cause the blaze, which ripped across the valley, destroying homes and several wineries and resorts.

The three IQ FireWatch cameras are not to be confused with cameras that are part of the separate ALERTWildfire North Bay system.

ALERTWildfire over three years has installed cameras at a dozen locations in Napa County. The public can go to to see views from Mount Veeder to Mount St. Helena to Berryessa Peak and other vantage points.

But the AlertWildfire system cameras are simply cameras. They don’t have heat detection, artificial intelligence technology, and other high-tech features. Nor is the system monitored day and night.

Christopher Thompson, board president of Napa Communities Firewise Foundation, said the high-tech cameras should make a difference. And, he said, in a sense, the concept is not all that new.

“We’ve used lookout towers in this country since the early 1900s,” he said, adding the IQ FireWatch cameras are the technological version.

Thompson is a volunteer firefighter for the Deer Park fire station. He lives in Deer Park, a small community northeast of St. Helena that lost dozens of homes to the 2020 Glass Fire — Thompson said perhaps a couple of hundred. Five homes near Thompson’s house burned.

Napa County is better prepared for fires this year in ways that go beyond the IQ FireWatch system, Thompson said. He pointed to projects such as clearing vegetation along major evacuation routes.

“I feel safer because we are at the very least dealing with the egress and ingress, which is a huge issue — egress, getting people out of the area and ingress, getting first responders into it,” he said.

Napa Firewise since the 2017 Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns fires has worked with the county and various groups to raise $18 million for fire prevention. It spearheaded the development of a five-year plan unveiled last spring that outlines fuel reduction projects.

In coming years as more fuel reduction projects are completed, Napa County will be even better prepared to deal with wildfires, Thompson said.

So far this fire season, the county has had some close calls but no megafire.

County Supervisor Ryan Gregory pointed to the Fremont Fire that broke out the afternoon of Sept. 22 in the Carneros region. It sent a column of smoke into the air that at one point looked ominous from the city of Napa.

But the Fremont Fire turned out to be a wildfire footnote. Ground crews aided by two helicopters and five air attack planes contained the blaze at 116 acres.

He sleeps better at night knowing the water-dropping helicopter is stationed at the Napa County Airport, Gregory said.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service as of Tuesday had no rain in its seven-day forecast. That means no end to the fire season — either early or late — is in sight.

Napa State Hospital averages almost 1.5 inches of rain in October. None has fallen to date this month and only .08 inches since March. Last rain year, the hospital received 10.24 inches, which is 37% of normal, according to the National Weather Service.

Under the watchful eye of Moana the llama, goats and sheep clear fire fuel on Calistoga's Mount Washington.

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