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Eyes in the wild

With fire season now pretty much year-round due to drought and global climate changes, the Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council and two local businessmen are moving ahead on a high-tech, low-impact way to alert authorities when fires start in the wilderness.

They call it “woo-ee watching.” That’s for Wildland-Urban-Interface (get it, woo-ee?). The WUI is where homes and other structures meet the wilderness and it’s where the danger of wildfire is greatest.

As firestorms raged last week, two cameras monitored the local wilderness interface from private homes in high points in Laguna Beach. They supplemented the efforts of public safety personnel and firewatch volunteers who went out into the wildlands to scout for fires.

Those two cameras are just the beginning of what proponents say will be a virtual “safety net” of cameras that will eventually scan the WUI.

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WUI-watching venture

David Mitchell and his 35-year-old camera surveillance company, Pro 911 Systems, has teamed up with Ryen Caenn’s Laguna Broadcasting Network, a wireless Internet firm, to provide the service. Both men hail from Laguna Beach and are donating services to the wildfire cause.

By Thanksgiving, they hope two more cameras with better eyesight and a much greater range of view will be looking out for Laguna, and that two more will soon be placed in other areas.

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With Mitchell’s camera expertise and Caenn’s broadband service, live webcam photos of the WUI can be broadcast over the Internet.

The images are accessible via a password-protected website. (More later on just who gets that password.)

David Horne, head of the Fire Safe Council and a Laguna resident, is the vital third prong in the WUI-watching effort.

Horne’s group sprang up after the devastating 1993 Laguna Beach firestorm, which destroyed more than 300 homes in Laguna.

That fire started in the wildlands east of Laguna Beach and moved west, swept by cruel Santa Ana winds that mirrored those we experienced last week.

Federal grant

Keeping the community safe from such firestorm conditions is what motivates Horne, who obtained a $10,000 grant from the federal Bureau of Land Management for the camera surveillance program.

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The initial two cameras are mounted on private homes owned by people who are sensitive to the danger of wildfire. They point in one direction and do not move. Mitchell says the new cameras will pivot and scan from side to side and up and down (pan and tilt) and can even zoom for maximum coverage.

The same cameras are now monitoring the sands in Newport Beach for that city’s lifeguard department, he says. They are also placed in other public places, including Crystal Cove State Park tidepools. The “wireless mesh network” now extends from Newport through Irvine to Laguna Beach, monitored during Red Flag conditions by public safety personnel and park rangers.

The cameras are solar-powered with a solar-fed battery backup.

More cameras planned

The new cameras will be mounted atop 16-foot poles, Horne said, and will be altered so they will not be able to “look” into private homes or areas where people have an expectation of privacy.

Horne and his partners have gotten unofficial permission from county parks officials to install two cameras, and are awaiting final permits.

Then they plan to place two more in the WUI.

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If the Laguna Beach School Board agrees, a camera will be placed at Top of the World Elementary School, which sits atop a ridge that could be inundated by flames within minutes under the right, or wrong, conditions.

Mitchell says he is very sensitive to the privacy concerns of those who live near the places where cameras will be mounted and that the cameras are only placed where lenses will not be invasive.

“People don’t want technology to invade their privacy,” he notes.

He says that, for now, the images broadcast over the cameras will not be recorded, but that could change.

Other uses

Using such cameras for wildfire protection is one thing, but apparently other uses are also gaining ground.

Mitchell notes that the Bureau of Land Management is very interested in using the cameras to track the movements of wildlife, particularly predators like bobcats and cougars.

One can only speculate as to the potential for crime-fighting uses. With many fires set intentionally, a surveillance system could be valuable as a deterrent or to bring the perpetrators to justice.

As to who will have access to the images, both Horne and Mitchell say that only “officials” — fire, police and parks authorities and firewatch volunteers — will get the password to the WUI-watch website.

Those who are approved for access must agree to a code of ethics about the use of the cameras and the images they provide, Mitchell says.

Not well known

Up until now, the camera system has been kept somewhat under wraps, known only to the private parties, volunteer groups and public agencies directly involved.

Mitchell’s website calls the city of Laguna Beach a “client,” but he has so far not needed the permission of city officials for the WUI-watch system.

Mitchell, a member of the city’s Disaster Preparedness Task Force, says he’s talked about the system with individual council members and members of the Red Flag Fire Alert volunteer organization, to which he also belongs.

For his part, Horne visited the school board last month to ask for permission to mount the camera on school property. The board invited him back for further discussion.

So the general public should soon become much more aware of the camera system that is already watching what happens in the local wilderness — and will be watching more.


CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She may be reached at cindy.frazier@latimes.com


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