This year has been a challenging one for Phil Schneider, who hasn’t seen wildfire behaviour like this in his 47-year firefighting career.
Blazes raged through more than 2,000 acres of wildland in recent months in his county deep in the woods of Oregon, where a wet climate once made forest fires unthinkable. That’s an increasingly common scene around the world — from Canada to Greece, global warming has helped fuel larger and more destructive blazes, pushing firefighting services to the brink. But Schneider has a new recruit to help manage the growing risks: artificial intelligence.
“It’s a huge game changer for the fire service,” says Schneider of the technology created by Pano AI, which acts as a second set of eyes looking out for fires. While AI alone won’t completely ease the burden of wildfire management, it’s one of a growing number of tools firefighters have at their disposal to detect and combat blazes.
The high-tech fire lookout Schneider has recently put to work leverages panoramic cameras that capture minute-by-minute snapshots of their surroundings. Those images are then analysed by an AI algorithm that has learned how to look for signs of fires. It’s a job that’s traditionally been done by human eyes, whether it’s bystanders phoning in a fire or lookouts posted in towers.
It can take hours, if not days, to detect flames with conventional methods, says Schneider, a fire chief in Clackamas County. The AI system, on the other hand, can pick up the threat right away.“Fires are burning hotter and faster. That early detection is going to make a difference,” Schneider says.
On one occasion, Pano’s AI fire watcher located a blaze that Schneider’s crew failed to find after an hours-long search in forests. In another case, it spotted a blaze 30 minutes before anyone else.
San Francisco-based Pano AI, which has built about 100 AI-enabled fire lookouts in six US states and Australia, is one of a growing number of startups leveraging technology to aid in wildfire detection and prevention. Virtually nonexistent five years ago, the club of wildfire tech companies now has at least 400 members, says Bill Clerico, founder and managing director of Convective Capital, a venture capital firm specifically focused on investing in the sector.