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Napa County May Install Early Warning Wildfire Detection System

by Kerana Todorov
April 19, 2021

IQ Fire Sensor Coverage for Napa County. Graphic courtesy Napa County

A 60-foot telecommunication pole is under construction off Soda Canyon Road near the Silverado Trail. The tower is part of a proposal to boost cell coverage and fire protection in Napa County. The proposed towers that will support a fire detection system based on artificial intelligence will not be as visible according to the county. Photo by Kerana Todorov


An early warning wildfire fire detection based on artificial intelligence technology may be installed in Napa County later this year. 

Napa County officials are evaluating a proposal by Illumination Technologies California to install 10 monopoles that will carry an early fire detection system called IQ FireWatch. The system uses artificial intelligence based technology developed in Germany. 

The fire sensing technology looks for “disturbances in the air,” Steve Lederer, Napa County director of Public Works told the Napa County Board of Supervisors on April 6. “It’s about as early detection as you can get,” Lederer said.

The fire system will be monitored by a private company in Phoenix, Ariz, according to Calistoga-based Illuminations Technologies. The command post will contact the fire dispatch center in Napa County in case of an emergency. 

The poles will be placed throughout the county at high, unobstructed locations. The system will not include cameras, Lederer said. 

In exchange, the county will allow Illumination Technologies to install two-dozen telecommunication poles on public rights-of-way up and down the Napa Valley to improve cell coverage. The plan is to lease the poles to companies such as AT&T and Verizon, according to Illumination Technologies. 

Leasing the telecommunication poles will pay for the installation of the fire warning technology, according to the county and the company. Chris Canning, Illumination Technologies’ chief executive officer, said the IQ FireWatch system will be installed at no cost to the county. 

The poles leased to telecommunication companies will be camouflaged as trees. A 60-foot pilot pole that would be leased to one or more telecommunication companies is under construction at the corner of Silverado Trail and Soda Canyon. 

The company also plans to build the infrastructure that could support broadband technology in some remote locations in Napa County, according to the company.

The telecommunication poles will support  4G, not 5G capability, according to Canning, who is also mayor of Calistoga. 

A formal proposal may come before the Board of Supervisors on June 8, according to Lederer. A project evaluation under California’s environmental laws is under way, according to the county. An earlier plan to include sirens was shelved.

Wine industry representatives spoke on April 6 in favor of the proposed fire detection system, calling it another tool in the toolbox. 

“We see it as an instrumental tool in preventing catastrophic wildfires in the future,” said Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of Winegrowers of Napa county.

Rex Stults, vice president of industry relation for Napa Valley Vintners, also voiced support for the early fire warning system. He also noted the poor air quality caused by last year’s fires. “As an asthma sufferer myself, I had a hard time going outside in the Napa Valley between…what, August and Halloween, just about,” Stults said.

Still, the project has grass-roots opposition. Napa Neighborhood Association for Safe Technology, a group that is against the installation of 5G cell towers in Napa, is circulating a petition against the Illumination Technologies proposal. 

The group opposes the installation of telecommunication towers for health and environmental reasons, including concerns over wireless radiation. The opponents also question the aesthetic of the poles camouflaged as trees. 

The petition seeks to have Napa County pay for the fire sensing technology, either with a portion of the $34 million dollar settlement Napa County received from PG&E in 2020 for the destruction caused by the deadly 2017 wildfires or with state funds recently set aside for wildfire protection.

Sonoma County also wants to use artificial intelligence for early detection of wildfires. The county awarded in March a $300,000 contract to South Korea-based Alchera Inc. to set up the AI technology, according to a press release issued in March. 

The algorithm will work through the existing ALERTWildfire, a network of monitoring cameras on the west coast, including Napa and Sonoma counties. ALERTWildfire is collaboration that includes the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of California San Diego and the University of Oregon. 

The new AI algorithm is expected to be online in May, according to a Sonoma County press release. Once in place, personnel will be alerted of a fire via text of email. Sonoma County has received a $2.7 million federal grant for its early detection fire technology. That includes $225,000 for artificial intelligence monitoring systems, according to the written statement.

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