SAN DIEGO — A firefighter is speaking about the deadly and historic Cedar Fire that broke out 20 years ago Wednesday.

It started burning in the Cuyamaca Mountains before spreading due to strong Santa Ana winds. Since then, scientists have been finding ways to prevent wildfires from getting out of control.

Fast forward to present day, new AI wildfire technology has been developed by both UC San Diego and Cal Fire along with high-speed internet source Digital Path to prevent the unimaginable from happening again.

The technology is so life changing, as of Tuesday, it was coined one of Time Magazine’s best inventions of the year.

“It was a pretty helpless situation. It seemed like there was fire everywhere,” said Fire Captain Brent Pascua when recounting October 2003. At that time, he was only two years into his job as a firefighter. “I was asking the older guys, hey is this normal, are we going to be OK?”

What felt like the unstoppable Cedar Fire was torching its way across San Diego County. In 2003, it was infamously marked as the largest wildfire in the state – one leaving behind lasting memories of a scorched paradise for San Diegans.

“At the height of all of it we had [more than] 15,000 firefighters working from Santa Barbara down to San Diego,” Pascua said.

It was a disaster, however, that sparked solution.

Twenty years later, new digital eyes are on the prowl to spot and stop wildfires, all to avoid more lasting scars made on local turf by a fierce flame.

“With these cameras, something like in 2003, we could have watched the fire from start to finish,” Pascua said.

The new technology is made up of a system called ALERTCalifornia which connects a network of over one thousand cameras strategically placed across the state. They’re designed to identify a spark, smoke, and a blaze all before a witness can dial 9-1-1.

“It alerts us when people aren’t watching the camera or it’s in the middle of the night.” 

The AI tool is already being put to good use. It spotted a wildfire overnight in Mount Laguna this past August when fast detection yielded fast response, stopping a nocturnal flame in its tracks. “We were able to recognize it was real fire, we were able to issue a response, and able to hold the fire to less than a quarter acre – with never receiving a 9-1-1 call,” Pascua said.

The ALERTCalifornia system is one out of 200 of Time Magazine’s “Extraordinary Inventions of 2023” and a system San Diegans can access from the palm of their hands to scope out a fire nearby.