New normals

"Cascading disasters": soccer-ball sized cameras are cataloging the burning American West

"People like to say that [events like these] are unprecedented. I would say that in this time of extreme climate, everything is precedented."

Residents across Oregon and the Bay Area awoke to an unearthly scene on Wednesday, September 10th. Skies hazy with ash from encroaching wildfires had smeared out the Sun. In their wake, they left a vibrant red hue, as light struggling through the atmosphere was scattered to the opposite side of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Images of the scenes appear at best extraterrestrial and at worst reminiscent of dystopian films like Bladerunner: 2049. Neal Driscoll is a University of California San Diego professor and a leading member of the wildfire camera network ALERTWildfire, which captured image after image of these fiery skies. He tells Inverse that these images are something we can expect to see a lot more of in years to come as the number of wildfires in the west and around the world rise.

"People like to say that [events like these] are unprecedented," says Driscoll. "I would say that in this time of extreme climate, everything is precedented."

While shocking images like these are new to many of us, especially those who only experience these tragic fires through our computer screens, ALERTWildfire has been tracking such fires since 2016. As part of a non-profit consortium, researchers from UC San Diego, the University of Nevada Reno, and the University of Oregon help people across the world install soccer-ball sized cameras to create this interactive network of digital wildfire vigilantes.

In four years the network has grown to 600 cameras. Driscoll tells Inverse that number is expected to grow to 1,000 in the next few years.

Complete with their own back-up power and communications lines that are more stable than even telecom giants' in some remote locations, according to Driscoll, these cameras are prepared to capture the worst.

Orange skies across ALERTWildfire's network of cameras told a story of the regions' cascading disasters. Neil Driscoll / ALERTWildfire

In 2020, the world experienced record-setting wildfire destruction. The role this camera network plays in an offensive approach to fire management is more important than ever.

"[These cameras] provide rapid confirmation of 911 calls so that we don't have to send an engine to a mountaintop or launch an aircraft," says Driscoll.

"The whole goal here is to fight fire in its incipient phase and suppress it before it explodes and we're on the defense."

Being able to confirm wildfire tips and deploy firefighters to those sites during the first ten to fifteen minutes of a fire, known as its incipient phase, is crucial for getting control over a quickly growing fire, says Driscoll. In past wildfire seasons, it can be the difference between loss of acreage and loss of life.

While it may be possible for first responders to spot a newly emerging wildfire through the cameras' live video feeds, Driscoll says the mission is not to make these initial detections. Instead, the cameras are a safe and efficient way to optimize resources and respond to fires that have just begun burning.

But every system has its limits, and 2020 has pushed ALERTWildfire dangerously close to its own.

An evolving role — "If it had been three or five fires, we would have been able to deal with it, but [not] when it's 32 large fires, setting records every day," says Driscoll. "The cameras provided us situational awareness and actionable real-time data, but with all these fires we just didn't have enough people power and equipment [to get ahead of it.]"

This season, Driscoll says these cameras are playing a new role as the digital catalogers of what he calls "cascading disasters" stemming from these wildfires, including impacted air and water quality, respiratory health, and increased CO2 emissions levels. The unnerving, orange skies photos are merely a side-effect of these disasters.

But beyond simply observing these disasters unfold, Driscoll says that ALERTWildfire has plans for how it can still play a role in public safety and awareness even when it can't prevent wildfires themselves.

The team behind the network plans to integrate air-quality sensors and weather-station data with the cameras in order to provide real-time, public data about the movement of fires and what they leave in their wake.

Combined with a pandemic, potential respiratory complications from wildfire smoke are particularly concerning.San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

Driscoll says the ALERTWildfire network can be used by the public in the future to empower how we respond to emerging information about nearby wildfires. Using data like this to choose and evacuate early — even ahead of state recommendations — could help prevent evacuation traffic jams, which Driscoll says can be deadly when occurring directly in the path of a fire.

And for those lucky enough to live in states where optimizing your evacuation plan is not a necessity, the rusty, ash-clogged images serve as a sobering reminder that the effects of climate change are not a far off future, but have already become our reality. Treating them as the extreme threats they are will be crucial as these fires continue to rage.

"What I'd like people to look at [when] they look at this landscape that is surreal, is that we're in the new extreme," says Driscoll. "We just don't know how steep the curve of change is going to be."