Santa Clara County fire prevention aided by AI
Santa Clara County firefighters battle a blaze. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara County Fire Department.

The use of artificial intelligence has spread like wildfire into the world of fire prevention in Santa Clara County.

County officials are implementing AI sensors to analyze air temperature and particles in the air to locate fires and prevent larger ones from igniting. This comes as experts throughout the county have been looking at ways to prevent and contain wildfires. In 2023 alone, the state has seen more than 4,700 wildfires, according to Cal Fire.

Jared Lewis, a manager of environmental planning at San Jose Water, said the sensors will quicken response times and improve efficiency. Officials said it will only cost a few thousand dollars to implement this technology.

“We’re at a point in time in wildfire mitigation, where innovation is starting to play more of a key role in really reducing or minimizing those impacts,” Lewis told San José Spotlight.

The sensors will be solar-powered and analyze gas levels, specifically matter and heat. The sensors were developed by N5 Sensors, a company that makes wildfire sensors used by government agencies like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

About 10 AI sensors are being placed around the Los Gatos Creek watershed area and unincorporated parts of Santa Clara County, according to officials who will implement the technology. The sensors will cover about 6,000 acres across Santa Clara County. The Santa Clara County FireSafe Council, a nonprofit focused on wildfire prevention, and San Jose Water will install the sensors.

Santa Clara County FireSafe Council CEO Seth Schalet said the AI used in the sensors is not like ChatGPT, which is trained to follow a prompt. This technology is developed to track when fires ignite. He said they will have a microprocessor and be encased in a shell. The sensors will have a safety feature that ensures they shut off if anything goes wrong.

Schalet said the sensors will help alert firefighters to potential wildfires near the watersheds, which could damage the piping system that sends water to almost 1 million San Jose residents.

“There is a role for technology to play that can aid in all of the work that we do in the fire service agency, specifically on early warning in early detection,” Schalet told San José Spotlight.

While there is no specific date for when these sensors will be implemented, officials said they will be placed in the coming weeks.

The idea for these sensors came out of Oakland, where the Oakland Fire Department installed 10 sensors through a 24-month pilot program.

Efforts to understand and control wildfires is the focus of a team at San Jose State University’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center. The group’s goal is to better understand fire behavior, and researchers are studying how embers, also known as firebrand showers, behave.

SJSU’s wildfire research center—one of the nation’s largest academic wildfire research centers—launched in 2020 following the Santa Cruz lightning complex fires, which burned nearly 400,000 acres across six counties, including Santa Clara. The center aims to conduct wildfire research that will improve tools and policies to prevent and fight fires.

Contact Julia Forrest at [email protected] or follow @juliaforrest35 on Twitter.

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