Powering Strong Communities
Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Austin Energy Utilizes Artificial Intelligence Technology to Address Threat of Wildfires


The following is a transcript of the May 20, 2024, episode of Public Power Now. Learn more about subscribing to Public Power Now at Publicpower.org/Podcasts. Some quotes may have been edited for clarity.

Paul Ciampoli
Welcome to the latest episode of Public Power Now.  I'm Paul Ciampoli, APPA's News Director. Our guest in this episode is Chris Vetromile, wildfire manager for Texas public power utility Austin Energy. Chris, thanks for joining us.

Christopher Vetromile  
Yes, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Paul Ciampoli  
So, Chris, just to get a conversation started, I think this actually may be the first time we're interviewed somebody with your job title. So just for the edification of our listeners, could you provide an overview of your role and responsibilities as wildfire manager at Austin Energy?

Christopher Vetromile  
The goal at Austin Energy is to implement a systemwide wildfire risk mitigation strategy that's based on making our grid more resilient in our wildfire areas, and to increase overall reliability. So with that Austin Energy wanted to create a position that brought a subject matter expert in from the field. So I'm a wildfire mitigation specialist myself through the National Fire Protection Association.

I think it's great that what Austin Energy has done is they went out and looked for someone who was a wildfire mitigation specialist and coming in and learning about the utility world and how it can implement those mitigation tactics from from the wildfire side to it. Most all the West Coast utilities kind of look from in house and they decide, okay, we have this problem, how are we going to deal with this. And so I think it's just really unique that my background, I started off with a career in CalFire, which is the fire department for the state of California. And they're basically the premier wildland fire agency. And with that, my last role actually was at Austin Fire Department's wildfire division. And so there I was working with the community,  Fire Adapted Communities Program, and utilizing the tactics that you use nationally, to help harden homes and get people ready for this wildfire response.

So with that, both of the agencies that I worked for, and nationally, everybody looks to this national cohesive wildland fire management strategy. And that's basically coming up with a way to safely and effectively basically live with fire and understand fire and what that means. So with that, I was able to look at the utility world, look at the world I came from utilizing the national cohesive wildland fire management strategy.... Basically, it uses three tenets to encompass everything that needs to be done in the wildfire world and it overlaps really what the utility needs to do and all the work that will help a utility become more resilient.

And so with that, you have resilient landscaping, which is just looking at the vegetation and fuel management, which is kind of a given in every utility world that we have to keep the lines clear, we'll just look at a more enhanced version of that. And then in the wildfire world, they look at fire adapted communities. And what that means is, is home and community hardening, making things more resilient to fire and so reducing human caused ignitions and... in the utility side of that, it was just encompassed around the utility itself, so we're calling it fire adapted infrastructure, and we're looking at ways to harden our grid to make it more resilient and not cause these wildfires.

And then the last part of that is a safe and effective wildfire response. So in the wildfire world, that means using the appropriate apparatus and equipment and training to actually go out and fight those fires, but in house, we're just going to more look at like the response as the fire to help assist the fire department and then the recovery after that. So I think it's a really unique look at the way a utility is coming into understand the wildfire mitigation world and then put those tactics to basically implement them.

Paul Ciampoli  
Just looking at Texas, specifically, I wanted to get your insights with respect to the threat that's facing the state as we head into the summer months.

Christopher Vetromile  
As we all know, the state is very large, and it has a diverse topography and vegetation types. There's 10 different climate regions in the state of Texas from the high plains and forests down to the Gulf Coast and marshlands there. So it's really, really hard to distinctly go in and look at it on the whole, but in general, we're having hotter and rising temperatures in the state and we're having decreasing precipitation. So meteorologists are actually predicting kind of a drought scenario coming up this summer. And that will dramatically increase our wildfire risk and potential as the summer comes in. Looking at the state on a whole at the moment, we have had 180 fires already this year in the state of Texas. It doesn't seem like we could because we're coming out of winter it's been raining, but with those different microclimates that we have some of the fuels have been drying out. And I do need to mention that the state of Texas did just have its largest fire to record. In late February, we had a fire up in the Panhandle called the Smokehouse Creek Fire. And it was the largest fire in state history, burning over 1.2 million acres. And that's the second largest single fire in recorded history in the U.S. So if that is a prediction of anything that's to come, I think Texas might be looking for a really, really hot, dry and then fire intense summer. But to kind of back down... I'd like to more overlook kind of central Texas of where Austin is right now.

And Austin in general is considered now to have a year round wildfire risk and that's due to a couple of different things. We have an increased population, people just keep moving here. So as these people move in, it's creating different land use types. So we're looking at people moving more into what we call the WUI, the wildland urban interface areas. So that's the area where you have nature and then you have manmade homes and objects being built into that nature. So we're expanding the city footprint and out into these wildland areas. And so that gives you a big risk, because you do have that fuel to burn. And then with that, we're just having changing weather patterns as well. So like I talked about before going into a drought, we think our area's going to be hit with that pretty hard this this summer as well. And so that drier and hotter vegetation that we're going to have, will just increase the intensity of the fires that we're going to have.

So the one thing I do want to point out that when you look at a West Coast and the West Coast fires, they're just large, tremendous fires, usually multiple fires at a time that kind of burn together, and they are creating more acreage burned than they've ever seen as well. But what's going to happen in our area, because our topography and the vegetation is a little bit different, is we're going to get multiple fire starts at the same time, that'll draw down our resources, and they won't be as big of fires, but we won't have the manpower to go in and put those fires out, and what we're going to see is we're going to have a lot of small fires with huge, catastrophic losses.

Austin actually has been rated pretty high, and -- it depends on who you talk to -- it could be the fifth highest rating for this what they're calling reconstructive cost value. So it's basically rebuilding the area after the small, yet catastrophic fire losses. So we don't get the amount of fires and then the frequency of fires every year, but when we do get them, they're going to be these huge loss fires. So we're trying to do everything we can to kind of get ahead of that and do these mitigation tactics so that we don't have those fires.

Paul Ciampoli  
One of the things that really intrigued me and prompted my invitation for you to join the podcast is the fact that the utility is utilizing artificial intelligence technology to provide its crews and emergency first responders with up to the minute information to quickly respond to wildfire threats. So could you provide additional details on how this technology is going to help Austin Energy respond to wildfire threats?

Christopher Vetromile  
The way I kind of looked at it, the utility's got kind of a twofold look at fire. So there's obviously a fire that has been started and it's out in the wild areas and a wildfire and is moving towards our infrastructure. So we have to look at that and look at how we can help to slow that fire down or put that fire out...[and] aiding with the fire department. And the second one is obviously that the utility itself creates that fire, so we're looking at ways to grid harden and using this technology to do that.

And so the first thing that we're doing is we are looking at risk analysis software so that we can better define our high fire risk areas. So this software basically takes our infrastructure, it takes that topography, takes the vegetation, and then fuel, our weather, history and fire history and kind of comes up and it'll go through our grid itself and find our circuits that are in those high fire danger areas that have the potential to have that catastrophic loss if something did happen. So with that, we're going to couple that with remote pole weather stations and that gives us the real time situational awareness for those existing conditions that are out there to better enhance our knowledge and know what the situations in the field actually are. And so this basically takes advantage of AI machine learning for these weather forecasts and be able to predict out those models, but also we're installing right now camera systems and so we have partnered with Pano AI, which is high definition cameras that are put out in locations around Travis County and our service territory, the city of Austin, and they actually detect and look for smoke.

And so we're calling it an early warning smoke detection camera system.  And what that does is that AI and the cameras will pick up that initial smoke, it'll run through its algorithms and find out if it is a wildfire, if it's a car fire, if it's a house fire, and then from there, it'll detect, say, Yep, this is a real smoke that could possibly lead to a wildfire. And it goes into Pano AI's detection center where they actually have human interface to that, and then they acknowledge that threat, and then they will actually send out a alert. And the biggest thing for our alert is that those alerts go straight into the 911 system. And so with that, we can get the fire department to know that there is a fire, we can triangulate it with two or more cameras actually looking at the location, so we need a GPS coordinate of that fire. And then the 911 system can look at that, know the location, know the best route in, and then know the closest fire station to call to that. And so they will get notified and they will send the alarm.

And then for us internally is our energy control center can look at that and see how close it is to our infrastructure and if we will need to deenergize for the safety of the firefighters when they come into that area. So it's a really exciting program and we're just about halfway into installation -- we have five out of 13 cameras installed and we probably will have three or four more online this week. And then hopefully, by the end of the month, we'll have all 13 stations up, which have two cameras each and like I said, get that 180 degree view of each camera. So both 360 of those high definition cameras protecting our service territory, the rest of Travis County, and then it kind of bleeds into the six counties around us as well.

A quick follow up if I could -- do you have any sense as utilities are working to mitigate the threat of wildfires, how many other utilities, whether they're Public Power, Co Ops, or investor owned utilities, are taking advantage of AI technology in that area?

There's quite a few on the West Coast that are doing this -- there's I think kind of two camera systems out there that are leading the way and Pano AI has probably 15 or 16 different utility companies on the West Coast...utilizing this technology. They're pushing into Canada right now, because Canada's having -- last year, and then already this year -- having some devastating wildfires. And then one of the cofounders is Australian so they're in actually five states in Australia as well. So we're the first ones in Texas to utilize this -- first one, probably outside east of the Rockies -- utilizing this system. But there are other utilities, there's other fire departments, other private agencies that are utilizing this. But like I said, we're the first in Texas to do that.

Paul Ciampoli  
So just a wrap up question -- beyond the use of AI technology wanted to know if you could tell our listeners about how Austin Energy is proactively working to mitigate the threat of wildfires through other strategies.

Christopher Vetromile  
Yeah, so like I said earlier, we've got those three tenets that we've kind of set the whole division up around.... Resilient landscaping is using enhanced vegetation and what in the fire world are called fuels management, but in the utility world vegetation management, and that utilizes the mechanical cutting and the trimming and pruning and removal of the trees and hazard trees in the right of ways.

And this is kind of twofold, right? It obviously helps for wildfires and keeps that fuel away and out of the area in case something is burning, but then it's also for our storm resiliency. So the less tree strikes and things that we have, the better off we'll be throughout the winter times as well.

We're also going to take a look at the hazard tree assessments. So anything that's out of the right of ways that might be a tree that's dying or dead, that could still have the potential to fall in because it is close enough. We're also analyzing  a system of what they call pole brushing...to take the actual pole itself and clearing out about 10 feet around that down to bare mineral soil we call it in the fire world as well and making sure that [there is] weed abatement so that if something does spark or... fire rolls through there, we won't have actual flame impingement on our poles.

Going into the fire adapted infrastructure side to it. Like I said, we're having the risk analysis software and that situational awareness and we're utilizing that smart technology to do our risk based decision making. So it's where we're going to go in and look at the smart grid and hardening systems. So one thing we're looking at is to do cover conductor in our high fire danger areas. And so that's just taking the bare wire and replacing it with a covered conductor. So the conductor itself will have an inner layer and an outer layer to protect it so that you won't get that fault, that arc across two lines if a branch falls across it. We're looking at fast acting fuses, so we don't have the spark generated from when when they they do trip. We're also looking at fire resistant pole materials.

We're looking at wrapping existing poles that are out there with fireproof materials so that if a fire does impinge on it it won't catch the pole on fire. We're also looking at our SCADA systems, automatic reclosers and circuit isolators, which is a big one. So if we do have an area that needs the deenergized power, that we were not cutting off everybody on the circuit that we can just isolate it to certain areas. And of course, there's always the undergrounding possibilities, looking at and doing studies on the undergrounding and the possibilities to put a lot more of these lines underground.

And then the third thing is that safe and effective wildfire response. And so the one thing that we're kind of incorporating in that is our equipment inspections for conditional awareness. And one thing I could have mentioned up in the technology one is we're starting at the moment drone inspections. And so using drone technology, and then the AI that correlates with that, take pictures of these poles and then looking to see if there's any defects in the pole itself or any of the hardware that is on the lines that need to be replaced before they fail.

And then we have direct communication with the fire departments, and our ECC, so if they are in the field, and they do need to deenergize, they need to ask questions about poles and lines that are there, they can talk directly with them and then we can deenergize if needed.

And then internally, we also have just hired an emergency management director and so we are upgrading our incident management teams internally, so if there is a fire, an incident, we can activate our Department Operations Center, and then we can go active and then help manage that wildfire response internally. And then the other big one that we're doing is we're bolstering our community outreach and engagement. So getting the people more involved to understand the process, understand what all this means  and then what will happen if we do have to shut off that power, what it means to them and what we can do to help them while that's basically that power outage.

Paul Ciampoli  
Chris, thanks so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with us. I feel confident in saying that there's a lot of food for thought for our listeners from this episode. So thanks again for taking the time and we'd love to have you back perhaps after the summer season to kind of look at successes and lessons learned after you get through the summer.

Christopher Vetromile  
Definitely. Sounds great. And thanks again for having me.

Paul Ciampoli  
Thanks for listening to this episode of Public Power Now, which was produced by Julio Guerrero, Graphic and Digital Designer at APPA. I'm Paul Ciampoli and we'll be back next week more from the world of public power.