Seismic networks can help fight fires. Here's how.

Pairing high-definition cameras with microwave-based earthquake early warning networks can help firefighters pinpoint blazes without wasting resources or risking personnel.

AlertTahoe/ NSL
AlertTahoe's fire cameras captured the Washington Fire south of Lake Tahoe, Nevada in 2015.

The same systems used to detect earthquakes in California and Nevada are now being used to help firefighters detect wildfires faster than ever, with the potential to save both dollars and lives.

“The old style of firefighting is like storming the beach at Normandy,” said Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory and seismology professor at the University of Nevada, in a press release.

“If you can get on a fire early, with special tools,” Prof. Kent continued, “then it becomes more like a Special Forces situation.”

Two of Kent’s homes in California and Nevada have been in danger of, or burned by, wildfires.

Kent, who is speaking at the Seismological Society of America's 2016 Annual Meeting in Reno, Nevada, this week, says that seismic warning systems currently in place across the southwest, if repurposed to allow for the detection of multiple hazards, could serve not only as earthquake monitors but as lookouts for wildfires, floods, thunderstorms, and more.

The seismic detection networks in place in Nevada and eastern California can also be designed to transmit footage captured from high-definition wilderness cameras with the ability to pan, tilt, and zoom. Transmitted via the microwave-based earthquake system, the high-quality images can quickly point first responders toward dangerous situations or weather events without interference or delay from other communication grids during emergencies.

The multifunctional detection systems are already proving successful, Kent says. During last year’s fire season in Nevada, a platform dubbed AlertTahoe and another like it were responsible for prompt warnings for more than 25 fires. AlertTahoe and the Bureau of Land Management will add 15 to 20 new wildlife cameras to its system in 2016.

Researchers are also currently developing “machine vision” for the camera systems that would allow computer programs, rather than people, to watch for images of fire, smoke, and other signals of an emergency, he said.

He added that the cameras can not only aid in disaster alerts, but also save money on earthquake sensors through savings in firefighting by allowing better planning and resource management before any emergency crews or equipment are used.

“If you build a network that's putting out fires six months out of the year – a lot of them – that essentially pays for the deployment of the entire earthquake early warning network and operation costs for a decade or more in just one fire season,” Kent said.

“Firefighters have to be careful that they don't overrespond on one fire, and then have another larger fire within the hour or so and be positioned in the wrong place,” he added. “Fire cameras help you understand how bad a fire is, and see how aggressive it is.”

The systems could also alert firefighters to blazes caused in the aftermath of earthquakes.

Firefighters and scientists are working to expand the infrastructure from Nevada and California to Idaho and Montana by 2017, to aid in firefighting there.

Footage from the cameras are also available to the public and monitoring agencies, in the form of real-time and time-lapse images.

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