California fires may be inevitable, but the damage can be preventable.

On August 17, 2020, lightning from the sky started multiple wildfires ranging from small 700-acre fires to massive, rampaging beasts that turned more than a million acres into dust.

The North Complex Fire

One such fire was the North Complex Fire, which burned 318,935 acres and took 16 lives, setting it as one of the deadliest and largest fires that California has ever seen. The fire started a few miles south of Lake Almanor in Plumas County, and spread southwest towards Butte County, swallowing an area equivalent to the city of Miami.

Progression of the North Complex Fire

Of those who passed away, Zygy Roe-Zurz lost three family members that day — his mom, aunt, and uncle, who resided near Berry Creek in Butte County. Roe-Zurz told the LA Times that the three had packed to evacuate initially, but decided to stay home after reading misinformation online. Since the last communication from Roe-Zurz’s mom was that they were unpacking, just imagine his shock and horror when he learned a week later that all three family members were found dead fleeing the fire. Josiah Williams was another victim who, unfortunately, could not escape, and he was only 16. His mother reported him missing after days of no communication, and even asked for a search party around their home. Josiah’s father, Justin Williams, told the LA Times that Josiah and his older brother were supposed to leave their home in Berry Creek in their respective cars, but couldn’t make it out in time. A dozen more people passed away from this record-setting fire, and the pain and destruction doesn’t stop in Berry Creek.

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire

Another fire that wreaked havoc on August 17th in Northern California started a few miles west of Lake Barryessa, in Napa County, and aggressively advanced through the neighboring counties of Lake, Sonoma, Yolo, and Solano County.

Map of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire burned 363,220 acres, affecting families who built their lives in these beautiful areas. Jim Robinson, a livestock farmer from Napa county, barely made it out alive as the fire trapped him and his girlfriend, Karen Fiscus, and forced them to hide in a drainage pipe until emergency responders rescued them. Robinson said that, in the past, they were able to wait out the fires, but this one was different. “It had its own atmosphere,” he told UC Davis Health. Robinson’s mother, Shirl Katleba, said that her son’s only mode of transportation broke down so Robinson helped Fiscus seek shelter and crawled nearly a mile to the end of his driveway to get a flashlight. When the Rio Vista Fire crew came, they spotted Robinson’s flashlight. They told him to get in the car, but he refused to leave without his girlfriend. The firefighters finally found Fiscus an hour later and rescued the couple. Robinson has since recovered from his second and third-degree burns, but, unfortunately, Karen Fiscus died from her injuries.

Aftermath of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire

Kurt Balasek, another survivor of the Lightning Complex Fire, was relaxing at home around 11:30 PM when he saw the behemoth of a fire making its way downhill toward his house. Without a beat, he gathered his wife, Connie, and 88-year-old father, Jerry, into their respective cars and urged them to evacuate while he stayed back and kept their home from turning into a pile of ash. While Kurt was preparing himself for his first bout with a huge wildfire, it wasn’t the first time for his father, Jerry. Back in 2018, Jerry Balasek narrowly dodged the Paradise Camp Fire with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. Having escaped the deadliest and the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, Jerry told the Sacramento Bee, “there’s a wind that precedes a fire that’s quite different than any other kind of wind. I’ve only experienced it twice: Once in Paradise. And once the other night.” Fortunately, the Balaseks are all safe and their home was generally untouched all thanks to evacuating promptly and heeding experts’ advice.

The Problem

The sad part, however, is that Jerry Balasek’s experiences are not so unique. In 2020 alone, there were 8,112 fires and 1,443,152 acres burned, which were 1.4 and 3.2 times greater than the 5 year average, respectively. Four out of the five largest California wildfires occurred in 2020, with the North Complex Fire being the fifth deadliest and destructive California wildfire to date. Butte County, home to the infamous Paradise Camp Fire and now North Complex Fire, had nine fires in 2020 in a span of five months. While victims like Jerry Balasek were able to evacuate, many others were not so fortunate and most likely fell victim, again, to more fires. And the problem is not that these fires are unpreventable or unanticipated. The problem is that California regulators lack the manpower and technology to monitor more than 250,000 miles of land. John Fiske, a lawyer for wildfire victims, told the LA Times that it’s upsetting to have areas that “look like they’ve been bombed in a war zone” when you know these disasters are preventable. Vox wrote that in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a character is asked how he went bankrupt. He responds,

“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

The wildfire problem in California is escalating in a similar direction. Rising temperatures due to climate change, decades of poor land management, hundreds of thousands of miles of outdated power lines cloaked by forests, and not a game-changing solution in sight.

The Solution

The future, however, is not utterly hopeless. Over the years, fire and smoke detection technology has evolved to spot fires and provide timely notifications to designated responders. The technology involves training AI on how to detect fire and smoke accurately, updating the model continually, and relaying that information to the right people. At Alchera, we’re doing all that and installing our fire detection software into existing fire watch cameras. This Visual Anomaly Detection (VADT) solution that we call AIIR (AI Image Recognition), monitors the designated areas for ignitions and sends alerts all day, every day. In fact, our fire detection software is currently applied to a third of all fire watch cameras in California, an area nearly the size of the UK, and has already caught hundreds of ignitions since June 2020. Our solution provides three main benefits:

 ㆍ Real-time detection of early-stage wildfires.

 ㆍ  Scalable to any number of cameras.

 ㆍ Reduction of the valuable human resources needed to respond to emergencies.

Walbridge Fire detected on Alchera’s AIIR Wildfire Alert System, 8/18/2020

As the size and frequency of wildfire incidents increases every year, the urgent need for tangible and immediate solutions is unquestioned. Thanks to the advent of AI technology and its exponential improvements, fire detection and prevention is finally feasible. Alchera’s commitment to support fire victims is driven by the fire detection software’s product owner, Robert Grey, a California native. “Wildfire is an unavoidable part of growing up in California. While we’ve been fortunate enough to not have lost a home or loved one, seeing the fires coming over the mountain towards our home in San Diego was a reality check. Unfortunately, we did have family friends lose their homes this last year. Early detection and prevention is critical, but so far the legislation is only geared towards response. We’re hopeful that technology like ours will help shift that paradigm.”