Elijah Priwer is a mechanical engineering student at UC Berkeley, whose interests lie in aerospace engineering, artificial intelligence, and astrophysics.
Rita Rosiek is a New York-based copywriter and marketer whose work spans startups and emerging technologies.
Wildfires have become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon around the world, from Greece and Turkey to Australia and California.
There are several causes of these fires, from stray cigarettes and unquenched campfires to lightning strikes and, as is especially prevalent in California, damaged power lines.
The Dixie fire, which started on July 13 after a tree fell on Pacific Gas & Electric power lines, became the largest single fire in California history.
With PG&E facing mounting debt due to various lawsuits between the 2015 and 2017 wildfires and the 2018 Camp Fire that consumed the city of Paradise, the utility company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in hopes of avoiding tens of billions of dollars in additional fire liabilities.
PG&E emerged from bankruptcy with commitments of $ 25.5 billion settlement for all major wildfire victims and groups, along with changes to their board of directors.
Currently, PG&E Vegetation Management The protocol consists of cleaning trees throughout the year using traditional methods. After the land or home owner is notified of an upcoming inspection, inspectors will manually mark trees for pruning or removal. It could take four to six weeks for the marked trees to be cared for accordingly.
As part of the bankruptcy reorganization plan, The California Public Utilities Commission enacted measures to strengthen the governance and operations of PG&E. One of these measures includes Enhanced Vegetation Management Program (EVM) to reduce the risks of forest fires.
This means that as PG&E continues with its vegetation management protocol, it will also consider the potential risks of trees that are dead or dying, have overhanging branches, or are too tall. The company’s primary goal is to complete 1,800 of the 2,400 EVM miles by the end of 2021.
The utility company identified Circuit Protection Zones (CPZs) as the focus for the top 20% of areas most at risk of wildfires. The top 20% is divided into risk areas of 1% to 3%, 4% to 10% and 11% to 20%, with the top 1% to 3% being the main focus for the 1,800 EVM miles. Only 1% -3% cover approximately 2,422 miles.
Comparing the origin of the Dixie Fire from sources like the Chronicle of San Francisco, Google Maps and the map provided by PG&E, it is clear that the Dixie Fire is only close to the CPZ with a risk of 11% to 20%. The likelihood of PG&E conducting its EVM program this year in the Dixie Fire region is very low.
California droughts have been more intense and long-lasting. There is not much room to bet between what offers the highest risk. In this case, the access to information and the speed of these operations must match the scale.
At Spacept, we are interested in seeing if our tools can detect the vegetation hazards that caused the Dixie Fire. Being able to detect encroachment could allow future wildfire prevention and increase the reliability of utilities.
To determine this, we extracted satellite data taken on June 15 by the SPOT satellite and focused on the area indicated by the Chronicle of San Francisco as a probable starting point. Fire is reported having started near Feather River Canyon on Dixie Road.
We then apply our tree detector to the satellite image to find any invasions of trees or vegetation in the path cleared by PG&E around the power lines.
Our tree detector found certain levels of overgrowth in the path of power lines. By zooming in on a part and putting on a mask that detects the path of the power line and vegetation, we generate an image of one of those areas of dangerous overgrowth.
In the image, blue road represents clear sections of power line road, red represents high-density levels of trees and vegetation, and orange represents medium levels of vegetation density.
Dice PG&E recommendation For tree lines below 40 feet to be no closer than 15 feet to power lines, we found several areas of great concern that violated such protocols in this area. In future situations, PG&E and other utilities may use satellite-based solutions such as those of Spacept to identify such excessive growth in advance and direct vegetation management resources to those areas.
In places like California, where wildfires are especially frequent and devastating, any decrease in the number of wildfires in the area could prevent the destruction of crucial ecosystems and infrastructure, and save these companies billions of dollars in lawsuits.
Scalability hurdles and operations to initiate an inspection need better management foresight. Satellite analysis is a proactive and feasible approach and presents accelerated results for vegetation management.