Multiple factors often align to make California wildfires unusually hard to contain: hurricane-force winds that sweep toward the coastline, steep and often rough terrain, drought conditions exacerbated by climate change and finite resources spread thin by a vast landscape covered in wilderness.
As if that weren’t bad enough, many wildfires are fueled by another accelerant, something that almost ensures destruction on a mass scale: time.
California has 33 million acres of forest, far too much land for state agencies to monitor simultaneously. By the time reports of fires reach authorities and resources are mobilized, many hours, and sometimes days, can pass.
A San Francisco-based technology company called Chooch AI is trying to narrow that gap with the help of artificial intelligence, reducing the time between a fire’s eruption and the moment it’s spotted by people. The company — which is working with state agencies, researchers and technologists — is trying to develop an AI tool that would scour hyper-detailed imagery from satellites for evidence of wildfires largely invisible to the naked eye. If successfully refined, experts believe, the tool could lead to earlier wildfire detection that would almost certainly save more people and property from destruction.
Using the same imagery, the AI could be used to identify vegetation that is dangerously close to power lines and locate spots where fires are likely to erupt.
The more specific goal, according to CEO Emrah Gultekin, is an ambitious one: monitoring every acre of forest in California every 10 minutes, alerting authorities almost immediately when a problem arises. He believes the AI may be operational as early as next fire season, which traditionally occurs in the fall, after the state’s brush land has been dried out by months of summer heat.
“If there’s a small brush fire, you want to get there as fast as possible,” Gultekin said. “Oftentimes, it’s out of control by the time people realize there’s a fire and firefighters can be dispatched to the area, which is often hard to reach.
“Ultimately, we want to stop these fires from happening entirely,” he added, noting that early damage estimates from fires tearing through California in recent weeks have already exceeded $25 billion. “It’s a huge loss to the economy and a huge loss to human life and wildlife and it’s seriously costing families. There’s a lot of suffering going on.”
Even today, with satellites taking detailed pictures of the Earth multiple times a day, most fires are reported by people on the ground or in planes overhead. To locate fires, Chooch AI is training its AI to rely on infrared technology to identify heat and smoke, the latter of which can be pinpointed on an acre-by-acre basis.
For a hypothetical comparison, Gultekin estimated you’d need thousands of people to pore over millions of acres of rural land with a similar degree of precision. By tracking traffic patterns and camp fires, the AI can also identify where people have massed on the ground, creating a higher risk for wildfires. The overwhelming majority of wildfires — about 85%, according to some estimates — are caused by humans, experts say.
Gultekin said Chooch AI’s system is similar to models that are being used to pilot autonomous vehicles and operate facial-recognition technology at airports. Unlike similar systems, he said, Chooch AI has no plan to profit off the technology.
“The good thing about this AI is that it’s agnostic to the weather conditions,” Gultekin noted. “The AI can see through clouds and it can see through smoke, so it sees everything.”
So far, the company’s main obstacles have not revolved around training their AI, but instead getting access to useful satellite imagery. Because high-resolution satellites only provide data every 12 hours, Chooch AI’s team is training their AI to interpret lower resolution imagery — known as geostationary satellite imagery — which is updated more frequently.
Nirav Patel, a geospatial data scientist and an AI expert with California’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) who has been in touch with Chooch AI, said he believes their tool, when finished, has the potential to benefit firefighters on the ground. Patel is also a noncommissioned officer with California’s Air National Guard and was part of recent efforts to extinguish the Kincade fire in Sonoma County. He said he has seen how unpredictable raging fires can become when early warnings fail.
“That first six to 18 hours is critical to understand how the fire is moving so people can determine what physical or man-made obstacles can be placed in its path,” he said, noting that a satellite-based AI platform could be used alongside planes outfitted with sophisticated sensors and human assets on the ground, such as fire lookouts.
There are other efforts to harness the power of AI to combat wildfires. Last year, James MacKinnon, a NASA computer engineer, told Fast Company he’d developed an algorithm that could quickly process imagery from onboard satellites, a much faster process than sending images to Earth to be processed by a supercomputer. MacKinnon said his algorithm recognized fires with 98% accuracy.
“The fires stick out like a sore thumb,” he told the publication.
As wildfires ravage California, Patel said DIU is interested in partnering with companies that can offer solutions but want to maintain their intellectual property. To encourage commercial companies such as Chooch AI to develop innovative methods for combating natural disasters such as wildfires and doing damage assessments, DIU has created a competition for members the AI community called the xView2 Challenge.
When governments are faced with crises, whether its war or natural disasters, those challenges often produce technological innovation. Gultekin, whose company is participating in the xView2 Challenge, said California’s wildfires are no different, particularly when it comes to AI.
“Five or 10 years ago, no way we could’ve used AI to interpret satellite data in a meaningful way,” he said. “Right now, maybe we can. We’re working on it and lots of other companies are as well. Expect a boom in this type of technology over the next five years.”