SAN DIEGO — A new fire-fighting AI tool developed by UC San Diego and Cal Fire is gaining national attention.

The AI tool is called ALERTCalifornia and uses more than a thousand cameras placed throughout the Golden State to spot potential fires. Cal Fire started using the system at all their command centers on Sept. 1, 2023.

Personnel with the agency told FOX 5 during a tour of the system on Tuesday that the tool is incredibly useful for fire crews to monitor fire behavior in real-time, helping with other public safety alerts like evacuation notices during a wildfire event.

“What’s nice about the AI is it does 24/7 monitoring, where it would be a lot for me to actually sit here and watch those cameras all day long,” Suzann Leininger, a CalFire intel specialist, said.

If the AI detects smoke or fire, it will alert Cal Fire’s Command Center with a location and a percentage of certainty.

“That dot .47 is telling me that (it has) a less than 50% chance of thinking it’s a fire,” Leininger said, pointing to the AI system. “I would actually look at this and say that’s smoke from a fire, that would be my interpretation of that would be.”

When the AI system picks up a possible fire, Leininger or another intel specialist then alerts a fire captain to confirm the presence of flames before sending firefighters to the scene.

Cal Fire San Diego County Captain Brent Pascua explained to FOX 5 that the protocol that the ALERTCalifornia system allows for helps buy fire crews time.

“Anything that can speed up that intel sharing, the information sharing, among agencies, among civilians, people and resources is gonna help save lives,” Pascua said. “We don’t want to let them get out of control and then be behind the curve. We like to jump on these fires quickly, and keep them small.”

While the system was launched fairly recently, Pascua said that the AI tool detected a fire on top of Mount Laguna during test runs in San Diego County back in August. Firefighters were able to get to the scene and contain the brush fire under a quarter acre without ever receiving a 911 call reporting it.

Screenshot of Alert California AI system picking up a wildfire on Mount Laguna. (Courtesy of Cal Fire)
Screenshot of Alert California AI system picking up a wildfire on Mount Laguna on Aug. 5, 2023. (Courtesy of Cal Fire)

With these early successes, ALERTCalifornia has even made its way onto TIME Magazine’s list of best inventions in 2023.

“What’s really nice is once I get a notification, it’s already pointing to the fire. It’s already pointing to the fire or smoke,” Leininger said. “Just being able to see a very small detection helps us because it can be hard to see the fire, see the smoke sometimes.”

Pascua said there have been some false positives since the AI tool’s launch, where the system confused clouds for smoke. Cal Fire said it will provide feedback and teach the AI, so it can improve its detection.