LONDON — Wildfires fueled by climate change have ravaged communities from Maui to the Mediterranean this summer, killing many people, exhausting firefighters and fueling demand for new solutions. Enter artificial intelligence.
Firefighters and startups are using AI-enabled cameras to scan the horizon for signs of smoke. A German company is building a constellation of satellites to detect fires from space. And Microsoft is using AI models to predict where the next blaze could be sparked.
With wildfires becoming larger and more intense as the world warms, firefighters, utilities and governments are scrambling to get ahead of the flames by tapping into the latest AI technology — which has stirred both fear and excitement for its potential to transform life. While increasingly stretched first responders hope AI offers them a leg up, humans are still needed to check that the tech is accurate.
California’s main firefighting agency this summer started testing an AI system that looks for smoke from more than 1,000 mountaintop camera feeds and is now expanding it statewide.
The system is designed to find “abnormalities” and alert emergency command centers, where staffers will confirm whether it’s indeed smoke or something else in the air.
“The beauty of this is that it immediately pops up on the screen, and those dispatchers or call takers are able to interrogate that screen” and determine whether to send a crew, said Phillip SeLegue, staff chief of intelligence for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The cameras, part of a network that workers previously had to watch, provide billions of bytes of data for the AI system to digest. While humans still need to confirm any smoke sightings, the system helps reduce fatigue among staffers typically monitoring multiple screens and cameras, alerting them to look only when there’s possible fire or smoke, SeLegue said.
It’s already helped. A battalion chief got a smoke alert in the middle of the night, confirmed it on his cellphone and called a command center in San Diego to scramble first responders to the remote area.
The dispatchers said that if they hadn’t been alerted, the fire would have been much larger because it likely wouldn’t have been noticed until the next morning, SeLegue said.
Using AI to detect smoke from fires “is relatively easy,” said Juan Lavista Ferres, chief data scientist at Microsoft.
“What is not easy is to have enough cameras that cover enough places,” he said, pointing to vast, remote areas in northern Canada that have burned this summer.
Ferres’ team at Microsoft has been developing AI models to predict where fires are likely to start. They have fed the model with maps of areas that burned previously, along with climate and geospatial data.
The system has its limitations — it can’t predict random events like a lightning strike. But it can sift through historical weather and climate data to identify patterns, such as areas that are typically drier. Even a road, which indicates people are nearby, is a risk factor, Ferres said.
The technology, which Microsoft plans to offer as an open source tool, can help first responders trying to figure out where to focus their limited resources, Ferres said. / AP