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Early Warning Sensors Developed to Fight Wildfires

It is summertime in the United States -- the prime season for wildfires. So far this year, those fires have destroyed more than 200,000 hectares of forests in recent weeks. But now, scientists in the U.S. have developed an early-detection system, to try to save lives and property.

Wildfires near the western city of Phoenix, Arizona forced the evacuation of about 250 homes recently (June 23rd).

A windblown blaze destroyed at least 120 square kilometers. But now scientists from San Diego State University in California have developed a system of sensors they hope will help homeowners get out safely, and give firefighters an early start at containing the flames.

Professor John Kim of the university says, "The system has the potential to save lives and to save people's property. So we are excited, but we are also very cautious about what it can do for us."

Sensors have been installed in three remote sites in forests of San Diego County. The metal cylinders have an electronic "eye" that scans the countryside for infrared light -- undetectable by the human eye -- that is created by such fires. The sensor then sends warning signals to pagers or cell phones.

Stephen Abbott is the divisional chief of California's North County Fire Protection District. "It gives us a very precise location. In other words, rather than 'a fire in the Santa Margarita Valley,' which is 20 square miles (more than 50 square kilometers), we can pin it down to an area within a couple hundred square feet (about 20 square meters).

The sensors run on solar panels, and are designed to operate for 20 years without maintenance. They were developed after the October 2003 fires that killed 17 people in San Diego County.