A New Wildfire Watchdog

Alerts about forest fires shouldn't depend on pets smelling smoke. We need smart infrastructure, and that needs zero-power sensors

10 min read

The Windy Fire, shown here near California Hot Springs, Calif., on 27 September 2021, was first spotted on 9 September and burned through some 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares), including parts of the Sequoia National Forest. A sensor network [superimposed] might have provided an earlier warning.

David McNew/Getty Images

Why is the dog barking, you wonder, as you wake up? You notice the smell of smoke, and when you try to turn on your bedside light you discover that the power is out. Then you see it out your window: a wall of orange flame, crawling up a nearby hillside. You roust your family and run to the car. Your lives have just been saved by a Stone Age warning system: your dog.

This has been the experience of hundreds of Californians. In the case of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the 2018 Camp Fire, and the 2020 August Complex Fires, high winds blasted flames through populated areas in the early morning hours while residents were sleeping. Too many did not make it out of their beds, let alone their homes. In our always-on, sensor-laden, Internet-connected world, shouldn't technology have done better?

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