San Diego County plans to install more mountaintop cameras to bolster fire protection

Views from four mountaintop cameras during last month’s Lilac fire.
(San Diego County)

Five new high-definition cameras will be placed on mountain peaks and other elevated spots around San Diego County to bolster fire protection, and an existing computer network that links fire stations throughout the region will be upgraded, officials said.

An elaborate computer and camera network that allows firefighting agencies to closely monitor certain areas of the county has been in place for years. But officials want to increase the number of cameras used in the network.

When last month’s 4,100-acre Lilac fire erupted, several such cameras were able to capture what was happening and help guide firefighters’ response. The fire destroyed 157 structures and damaged 64 others. Forty-six horses were killed or went missing at the San Luis Rey Downs training facility.

“We were able to look at the smoke column and see the winds, and we knew within just minutes that we were going to have a major incident,” said San Diego County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham during a recent county Board of Supervisors meeting. “We committed a massive response based on what we were seeing.”


The High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network, known in the industry as HPWREN, connects firefighters from all agencies with real-time fire activity information. Sixty HPWREN stations use more than 180 cameras to provide high-quality, on-demand time-lapse HD imagery that helps spot fire outbreaks and prevent them from reaching catastrophic size.

During the Lilac fire, while the battle was being waged in Bonsall, dispatchers were constantly monitoring the system for other problem areas, Mecham said. Based on that information, “as we pulled resources from other parts of the county to the Lilac fire, we felt comfortable that we weren’t leaving other communities unprotected,” he said.

Last week, county supervisors approved spending $437,174 to add five new cameras to the system and to upgrade the bandwidth of the network.

The new cameras will be placed on Cowles Mountain, Cuyamaca Peak and North Peak in addition to locations in Boulevard and Valley Center.


Every time a 911 call is placed, officials said, the information is put into the network and every station gets a printout with location and type of call information. That happened more than 33,000 times last year.

Supervisor Ron Roberts, who has championed the technological side of firefighting efforts, said the system and other technological tools provide real-time situational awareness.

“It’s clear that recently our major emergencies are coming as wildfires,” he said last week. “They are devastating, they’re unpredictable and very hard to deal with. This effort today represents the latest in a continuing effort to increase fire safety.

“When you’re in a battle, information and communications are essential to making good decisions,” Roberts said. “ We’ve seen in the past what happens when they don’t have that information.”


The HPWREN system is the result of a partnership among the county, UC San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.