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Central Coast Researchers Develop Artificial Intelligence Tool To Help Quickly Assess Wildfire Damage

Lance Orozco
Damage caused by the 2018 Holiday Wildfire near Goleta.

Program uses computers and AI technology to quickly assess aerial photos to outline damage from wildfires.

It’s a sound we’ve heard far too often on the Central and South Coasts, and around the state. In this case, it’s a fire engine responding to the deadly, and destructive 2018 Woolsey wildfire.

The big brush fires not only caused large evacuations, they leave people in limbo sometimes for days, not knowing the fate of their homes. Two Central Coast professors have launched a project which uses artificial intelligence to quickly assess and map wildfire damage.

The idea started with a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor who is from originally from Butte County where a wildfires, the Camp Fire, killed 85 people and destroyed 18,000 buildings. Cal Poly Assistant Professor Dr. Andrew Fricker says the concept came out of his personal experience.

"There was a big fire in Paradise called the Camp Fire." said Fricker. "I grew up within the footprint of the fire, and my folks had to be evacuated," he said. "Everyone kind of had to leave at once, and we didn't have any answers."

KCLU News phto by Lance Orozco
One of the homes destroyed by the 2018 Woolsey wildfire in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.

Fricker explains the idea, which is called DamageMap. "I teach remote sensing," said Fricker. "I was frantically download satellite images, to see if I could get a look at my house, and my friends house." He later learned that his family's home was saved, but his friend lost his home.

That sparked the idea of somehow using computer technology, which he took to a friend, Cal Poly Assistant Professor Dr. Jonathan Ventura. He’s a computer science professor.

He took the idea to a conference sponsored by GOOGLE, and pitched the idea, where he got some help. Some Stanford graduate students took the idea they had developed at Cal Poly, and developed it further. The result is DamageMap.

Ventura says it works, but the artificial intelligence component needs more data to continue to improve the program. Right now, DamageMap is focused on information from the massive Northern California Camp and Carr fires.

Fricker says the program has the ability to provide information quickly. He says it’s as good as the photographic data it receives. While DamageMap was developed in response to wildfires, the technology could be used for other disasters, like assessing flood or hurricane damage.

The professors are hoping to work with the state’s CAL FIRE fire agency and insurance companies to further develop the technology, and make it available for use. They have made DamageMap available as an open source tool, which means it’s available for free. But, right now it’s not in a consumer ready form for public use it’s a little too complex.

The results of the research were just published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.