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Protect Power Grid from Wildfire – Early Detection, AI, Spread Prediction

Power Grid is Threat

The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. The fire started on 8th November 2018, ignited by a faulty electric transmission line near Camp Creek Road. A strong east wind drove the fire downhill through developed areas, at the speed of up to 80 football fields a minute 1. An urban firestorm formed in the foothill town of Paradise. The fire caused 85 civilian fatalities. It burnt 62,053 hectares and destroyed 18,804 structures.


Poorly managed electric transmission infrastructure / powerlines / power grid is a major cause of wildfire, especially in California. Longer dry weathers, stronger winds, higher temperatures and electricity consumptions pose unbearable pressure on old energy infrastructure built 25+ years ago.

Strong winds swing the transmission lines and they spark fires when touching each other. Electrical power flowing through circuits causes them to heat up and expand. This affects how close to the ground that circuit hangs, the “sag”. Too much sag can bring the circuit closer to other objects or circuits resulting in sparks that have the potential to cause wildfires.

A traditional approach to managing the risk of wildfires is to switch out particular circuits entirely; this is the most established mechanism to prevent any fire causing sparks. However, this will also result in a change to the route that power takes around the rest of the network, and may cause public service disruption. In California when

extreme fire danger conditions are forecasted, electricity companies will proactively turn off electric power for safety – Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS).


Power level optimization
Figure 1: Power level optimization. Source: sunrun.com

Power grids are taking the following technical measures to reduce the risk of wildfire caused by the powerlines:

  • Hardening the transmission infrastructure, such as the use of smart reclosers
  • Proactively lowering or turning off electric power safety
  • Distribution Fault Anticipation (DFA): software that interprets variations in electrical current on utility circuits caused by deteriorating conditions or equipment. It warns power grids to respond to particular problems before they cause outages and possible spark fires. Texas A&M University is a pioneer in the domain
  • Advanced vegetation management: technology companies like IBM and Insight Robotics are providing vegetation management services to electric companies, using aerial imagery and AI to monitor and predict if & when trees or vines might encroach on power lines. This helps power grids to manage vegetation more efficiently.

“No technology or program is ever going to prevent all fires. That’s just not possible. But what we need to do is use every tool that is available to us to prevent every fire that we possibly can, because some of those fires are devastating.” said Dr. B. Don Russell, Regents Professor at Texas A&M University, in the public hearing about impacts of wildfires on electric grid resiliency, 19-Dec-2019 2

Power Grid is Victim

Wildfires will burn power transmission infrastructures, disrupt their public services, and cause them financial losses and penalties. In some countries, farmers will burn their farms for agriculture purposes. Some fires will grow out of control and spread to nearby forests and transmission corridors. If the fires burn powerlines, broken circuits will possibly spark more fires when they contact ground objects!

It is dangerous to work near transmission powerlines. Firefighting is no exception. Typical voltages for long-distance transmission are in the range of 150,000 to 765,000 to reduce line losses. High voltages electricity can ‘jump’ across several meters of air gap and produce a potentially fatal event if it jumps to the human body. Smoke can act as a conductor. Fires burning on or near powerline easements can greatly increase the chances of a flashover occurring. Therefore personnel, vehicles and attachments are advised to stay at least 25m from the powerline.


Stay 25m or greater from transmission powerline
Figure 2: Stay 25m or greater from transmission powerline. Source: Essential Energy

To avoid wildfires to spread to powerlines and start more and bigger fires, we need rapid suppression. Independent Institute, a think tank in the US, published a report and offered 26 recommendations to improve wildfire safety in California 3. Some of the recommendations enable rapid suppression:

  • #11: Deploy more early-detection systems to quickly identify fires in forests and wildland-urban-interface
  • #13: Use more artificial intelligence to analyze data and improve firefighting
  • #18: Predict how a fire will spread so that firefighters can get ahead of the fire and defeat it before it grows
Figure 3: site study in Mexico about early detection of wildfire along transmission corridors

We are working with our partners to support power grids in Mexico, Europe, the US and Australia to mitigate forest fire risks. There are pilot projects covering the following solutions:

InsightFD installed on a distribution power tower
Figure 4: InsightFD installed on a distribution power tower

We see more power utilities are taking the initiatives to help their customers and communities to fight wildland fire. It is our pleasure to work together with them. Are you interested to know more about how power grids use our technologies to mitigate wildfire risk? Please click here to subscribe to our newsletters.



  1. Camp Fire: By the Numbers, PBS
  2. Hearing to examine the impacts of wildfires on electric grid resiliency, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, 19-Dec-2019
  3. California Wildfires – Key Recommendations to Prevent Future Disasters, Independent Institute

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