Satellites, AI and 800 cameras: Inside the race to understand - and stop - wildfires before they happen

Wildfires are only getting more dangerous yet technology has been slow to keep up with the threat - until now, writes Josh Marcus in San Francisco

<p>Dozens of burned vehicles rest in heavy smoke during the Dixie fire in Greenville, California on 6 August 2021</p>

Dozens of burned vehicles rest in heavy smoke during the Dixie fire in Greenville, California on 6 August 2021

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For many who live in the western United States, wildfires are a haunting presence. An ecological inevitability made increasingly unlivable by the climate crisis. It’s impossible to ignore them.

Each summer, weather reports are monitored, fire cams are watched, and smoke blots out the sun. Each year brings new records – five of the biggest seven fires in California’s history started in 2020 or 2021 – and hushed conversations are being had about relocating elsewhere before things worsen, for those fortunate enough to have a choice.

The threat of wildfire is growing yearly, but the science of predicting and responding to blazes isn’t. Officials at times rely on decades-old models, sporadic reconnaissance flights, and anecdotal observations to respond to fires that can decimate whole communities. The ongoing Dixie Fire in California has been burning since 13 July, and consumed 500,000 acres, making it the second-largest in state history.

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