California Fires: CITRIS researchers explore tech solutions

Close-up view of Clarity Movement Co. air quality monitor.
Photo courtesy of Clarity Movement Co.

Wildfires have shaped California’s landscape for centuries, but increased urbanization and development encroaching into formerly forested land is posing risks to life and property. Climate change is accelerating conditions that can lead to devastating effects. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), California is experiencing the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in its history. To date this year, 9,639 fires have contributed to the burning of 4,177,524 acres of land.

Researchers from CITRIS and the Banatao Institute are bringing technological innovation to combat the worst effects of wildfires on human populations and the built environment. The projects below highlight CITRIS’s contributions in researching fire mitigation and support efforts, from our earliest to most recent work.

In the early 2000s, CITRIS Principal Investigator and former Director Paul Wright worked on a series of “smart mask” research projects for firefighters to improve communication and information efficacy in real-time. The FIRE/FireEye/SmokeNet projects focused on equipping first responders with a head-up display on helmet face shields which provided direct contact with incident commanders via simple text. Project prototypes were tested with the Chicago Fire Department and Berkeley Fire Department.

In 2016, CITRIS provided seed funding to the Comparative Adaptive Management and Ecosystem Response Assessment (CAMERA), a project to photograph vulnerable natural landscapes in California’s Sierra Nevada. An ongoing research project, CAMERA offers substantial information resources so that communities living in forested areas and natural resource management experts can communicate the effects of climate change on regional public lands and watersheds.

CITRIS PI Jovan Pantelic received a CITRIS Seed Award in 2018 to explore the use of Internet of Things (IoT) measurements, combined with survey-based information, to evaluate the resilience of air quality management in buildings to extreme outdoor particulate episodes. His building-specific air quality research focuses on the impact of particulate matter from wildfire emissions on health. His technology was tested on the UC Berkeley campus in student-centered buildings like Wurster Hall. This effort was a response to California’s 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County.

Also in 2018, Katia Obraczka and a team of researchers received CITRIS Seed Funding for P.A.N.T.H.E.R. (Persistent Autonomous Monitoring for Timely Detection of Wildfires) to design, deploy, test, and evaluate a novel IoT system to enable accurate, timely, and scalable wildfire detection and prediction. Due to the size of sensitive areas that need to be monitored in California, automation is a scalable answer to persistent and accurate predictions and timely detection and alerts.

In spring 2019, CITRIS visiting scholar Louise Comfort joined a yearlong study to develop efficient ways to evacuate small towns such as Bolinas, California that are accessible only by narrow roads. Comfort and other UC Berkeley researchers studied optimal evacuation routes, traffic strategies, and alternative, operable communication methods in order to maximize the safety of residents during a fire and attendant power outages. The interdisciplinary research team found that having informed residents and learning from prior fire experiences are two essential elements to mitigate damage.

CITRIS PIs Yu Zhang and Scott Moura are developing predictive software that models fire risk regions. Their 2019 CITRIS seed-funded project analyses multi-hazard risks to inform distribution-grid upgrades for reliability and resilience, using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to run simulations of electrical damage from natural disasters. “Right now, I don’t think PG&E has a scientific framework for trying to do this in a systematic way,” says Zhang.

The “Health, Wildfires & Climate Change in California” white paper (PDF), published by the CITRIS Policy Lab in October 2019, describes both the extent to which California’s wildfire readiness is lacking and recommendations for next actions. This collaborative effort between Bruce Riordan at the Climate Readiness Institute and CITRIS has been widely circulated in state-level policy circles.

In early 2020, CITRIS Foundry company Clarity deployed over 70 network devices across every UC campus to prepare air quality monitors for wildfires. Clarity integrates smaller, cheaper, solar-power technology into air monitoring devices to provide air quality information at a localized level. Clarity’s revolutionary approach in this field supplements the sparsely populated, expensive sensors currently in place that are also vulnerable to power outages. Clarity has also recently partnered with Blue Forest Conservation, one of California’s leading private forest management facilitators. 

“It is crucial to have access to local and current air quality data, especially during wildfire season when air quality can change rapidly. It is not enough to know the regional AQI. Local monitoring is needed so people can know what air quality is like right outside their door and decide whether it’s safe to bring their loved ones out for a walk or to play in the park. That’s really what we are envisioning for the future,” says Clarity Founder David Lu.

The CITRIS + CIEE EcoBlock project builds zero-carbon energy, deep water conservation, and resilient city structures on a block-by-block level. The pilot site in Oakland’s Fruitvale District was announced in April 2020. Motivated by pressing environmental issues and California’s mandate to achieve 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2026, EcoBlock provides an affordable and cost-effective solution to California’s outdated power system. PI Alexandra “Sascha” von Meier argues that Ecoblock’s locally sourced solar power network will mitigate fire risk because it does not require easily damaged overhead power lines.

“In the face of wildfires and power shutoffs, urban microgrids can be a truly innovative solution. The Oakland EcoBlock project is developing a new way for keeping the lights on in the neighborhood even when the grid goes down, using shared solar energy,” von Meier says.

In fall 2021, the CITRIS Foundry Resource Sustainability X-Lab will host an innovation challenge to research wildfire prevention and measuring methods. Sponsored by Lotusland Investments, the challenge allows student innovators and researchers – from various backgrounds and disciplines – to collaborate, explore, and develop new technical solutions for early wildfire detection and mitigation. 

“We are focused on finding new ways to detect wildfires and respond rapidly. Students with various levels of experience, backgrounds, and interests are encouraged to participate,” says Thomas Azwell, CITRIS Foundry Fellow and Director of the Resource Sustainability X-Lab. In the meantime, the team is developing a robust wildfire resiliency research program that will include technology evaluation and testing as well as landscape modeling.

Working with leading faculty, researchers, and students along with partners from industry, first responders, and civil society, CITRIS is proud to catalyze these projects that provide social benefit for Californians.


The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute drive interdisciplinary innovation for social good with faculty researchers and students from four University of California campuses – Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz – along with public and private partners.

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