Only You (and Wi-Fi) Can Prevent Forest Fires

By Naomi Graychase

October 31, 2007

Tropos works in conjunction with hard-hit California neighborhood to deploy wireless fire detection network.

Last week, as the Southern California wild fires that displaced hundreds of thousands reached their apex, some good news was quietly announced. Tropos joined Laguna Broadcasting Network in revealing the deployment of a new wireless fire watch system designed to prevent another devastating outbreak of fires like the one that has scorched the greater San Diego and Los Angeles areas this month. Too late to be of help to the people fighting the existing fires, the system could keep wild fires from sprouting up again undetected in the Laguna Canyon and Laguna Beach Urban Wild Lands areas it serves.

The project was initiated by residents of Laguna Beach who endured a massive wild fire in October of 1993 that destroyed 391 homes, damaged 645 others, and burnt over 16,680 acres. After the smoke had cleared, residents vowed that they would do all they could to find a reliable way to prevent a fire-based disaster from wreaking havoc on their lives again.

While residents have taken traditional preventive measures, such as brush clearings, trail breaks, and a “Red Flag Patrol” that keeps a closer watch on days when fire danger is high, they dreamt of a more effective—and less labor-intensive--system. After fourteen years, technology has caught up to their need.

“History is repeating itself even as we speak,” says Tropos CEO Ron Sege. “The community was searching for ways to prevent or at least detect fires early on. They finally settled upon a wireless solution using Tropos mesh. This gives the community the equivalent of what would have been a tall tower where someone with binoculars would have been sitting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

The network is funded by a federal grant from the Bureau of Land Management that is administered by the California Fire Safe Council. The grant was applied for by the Laguna Fire Safe Council, a neighborhood group formed by residents who lost their homes in the ’93 fires.

The Laguna Canyon and Laguna Beach areas that the network is designed to protect are difficult to cover because of the peculiarly rugged conditions that include the powerful Santa Ana winds.

Laguna Broadcast Networks, which deployed the Tropos MetroMesh Wi-Fi network, chose Tropos in part for its proven record at withstanding extreme conditions--Tropos’s video surveillance and communications network in New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina.

 Powering the network also presented a special challenge.

“We figured out how to lash solar panels and batteries to the access points so that they could operate without a wireline power feed,” say Sege.

The “Fire Watch” system, which covers more than 20 square miles of green belts, parks, and open space that encircle the City, monitor for fire in real time.

“Our goal is to prevent and minimize wildfires out in the hard-to-spot areas before they can spread and destroy local residences and businesses,” said David Horne, founding chair of the Laguna Fire Safe Council.

The network consists of pan, tilt, and zoom Sony cameras, which are mounted on collapsible fiberglass poles. The wireless network is backhauled to a solar-powered transmitter with battery back-up.

“The monitoring is done in a central location and, during fire season, it’s done 24x7,” says Sege. “Cameras are available to the community to watch as well. It’s really just a very effective way of providing an early warning system to minimize the potential for damage, mostly related to the fact that there isn’t any power in the areas where these fires are most likely to break out unnoticed.”

During high danger, or “Red Flag” conditions, the surveillance cameras are monitored by park rangers, public safety, and water utility officials. The Council expects to have the entire network completed by the end of next month.

The community is also contemplating expanding the use of the network to allow local organizations to watch for bobcats, habitat movement, and other useful things.

“It has provided a public-private partnership,” says Sege. “A local WISP is building it out and operating it, and the community is funding it. They have lots of plans to extend it into a multi-purpose network. They can put cameras on the beach and do virtual life guarding, offer newscasts, and events.”

PRO 911 Systems also provided installation services and partnered with Laguna Broadcast and Tropos Networks on the deployment of the Laguna Surveillance Network.

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at

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